Whitney: Talent, tragedy and an era of hollow optimism

November 22, 2018
  • 7/10
    - 7/10



Director: Kevin Macdonald

Censor: M Offensive language

TOBY WOOLLASTON checks out Whitney, Kevin Macdonald’s documentary on the singer whose life epitomised the thin facade of the 80s and 90s.

Scottish writer/director Kevin Macdonald is perhaps best known for his chilling account of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. His latest outing, Whitney sees him return to his documentary roots painting a captivating tale of the troubled pop diva Whitney Houston.

We all know how this story ends, and right from the outset Macdonald plays with the awkward push and pull of the demons that dogged her life. From her ‘don’t do drugs’ sign, to a sad account of her dreams “Devil is always trying to get me … but he never gets me”, Whitney is a film that drips with irony.

It’s an exhaustive examination of her life and career, spanning from her early years through to her death, pausing at times to take in a few of her key performances. Hers was a life that epitomised the thin facade of the eighties and nineties, and the film not only documents her inexorable pull towards drugs but also operates as a damming statement on the hollow optimism of the era. Macdonald illustrates this through striking montages of a nation brimming with the positive utopian fakery of big brands, sports stars, blonde hair and smiling white faces contrasted against the dark shames of war and race riots.

Whitney is a compelling documentary and attention given to its visual arrangement makes for an engaging watch. Macdonald has done a commendable job of harnessing the copious amount of archival footage, presenting a tapestry of overlapping imagery and footage that jumps around the screen, building on the film’s larger canvas.

Rather than relying solely on archival footage, this very well sourced documentary is laced with anecdotal stories from friends and family who give an emotional account of the pop diva. The breadth of candid interviews is worth noting. From larger-than-life personalities such as Bobby Brown to her mum, brothers, industry confidants, friends and family, all flesh out the Whitney Houston story. Even Kevin Costner has a few words to say.

The Blu-ray of Whitney offers little in the way of optional extras… none, in fact, save the obligatory English subtitles which are provided for the hearing impaired. The sound offers DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 format which is delivered with consistent channel separation; a feat that can’t have been easy to achieve considering the awkward blend of footage from different eras. The picture is 1080p widescreen 1.85:1 format but often resorts to pillarboxing in order to accomodate earlier archival footage.

Toby is currently a film reviewer for the New Zealand Herald and NZME’s regional media. A film enthusiast since Alien made him shit his pants as a nine-year-old, Toby recently completed a Masters thesis on the phenomenology of the cinema of Darren Aronofsky. So he is well qualified to tell you that phenomenology is a load of boring bollocks… but Aronofsky is quite interesting.

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