Searching for Whitney: Kevin Mcdonald’s New Documentary Whitney

Whitney Houston was an icon, a film star, a pop legend, a woman who overcame the odds to rise to the top of stardom. But behind that dazzling smile she was a broken, fragile soul who was always performing as someone else for the world, and never fully embracing who she truly was. Whitney’s life was tragically cut short in 2012, when she drowned in a hotel bathtub, with many believing that her drug addiction had played a role in her death. She was just 48 years old. How does one create a documentary that both covers this tragedy, but also highlights Whitney’s star power and shows us how she was behind the camera’s, without sacrificing any material or disrespecting the star’s image and her family?

Well,  as the film’s tagline declares we will witness: All the music. All the stories. All the answers. We won’t be disappointed, there is the music in all it’s glory, the stories, the gossip, the scandals and the memories. But will there be the answers? Well, you need to be the judge on that. Kevin MacDonald has managed to create an even balance, and commits to deconstructing the myth that surrounded Whitney, showing us an honest, and truthful depiction of the woman, from those who knew her best, her friends and family. MacDonald doesn’t start with the death of this brilliant, talented soul, but starts at the beginning, so we see the young, optimistic Whitney before the fame, the girl who sang in church and played in the streets with her brothers. We open with Whitney’s voice detailing a dream she had about being chased by the devil, even in her dreams she was always trying to outrun her demons. The documentary will reveal secrets about Whitney that span from her childhood, and this helps to deconstruct who she was as a person and why she began to unravel towards the end of her life.

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Kevin MacDonald, (who is behind such critical hits as Touching the Void and Marley) creates a montage using Houston’s music as a way to show us the context of her times; we see footage of princess Diana, Madonna, Michael Jackson, an AIDS banner, an Apple logo, wall street, yuppies, Pepsi commercial and MTV videos. Some other directors may be inclined to look back at this era with rose-tinted glass, but MacDonald doesn’t want us to look back on these times of excess and wealth as something to be admired or missed; it was the pressures and the attitude of the 80s which led to Whitney’s downfall, after all.

We have a series of interviews with various family members, colleagues and friends to weigh in on Houston’s brief life, most of them are sitting in a chair in front of a blank background as they recall their experiences with Whitney. Everyone has a different story to tell, and we realise that there wasn’t just one ”Whitney”, she had many different layers to her. Her elderly mother, Cissy Houston, says little, letting the pained strength in her eyes speak; her ex-husband, Bobby Brown, tries to insist that “drugs had nothing to do with her life.”and when MacDonald pushes him for an answer about the drugs being responsible for her death, Brown refuses to comment. His silence on the matter speaks louder than any words could.

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Others are more revealing, speaking of Houston’s drug use, as well as her relationship with Robyn Crawford (who, some speculate, was the forbidden love of Houston’s life, something that she had to hide in order to reach the level of fame she craved), and her tendency to “be an ATM for a lot of people.” There is one name that brings many interviewees to tears: Houston’s only child Bobbi Kristina Brown, known as Krissy, who in 2015 was found, like her mother, unconscious in a bathtub. She died at 22. I feel that the documentary slightly skims over the relationship between Whitney and Bobbi, and there should have been more time dedicated into exploring this aspect of the Houston story, but it still fresh in the minds of the family and prehaps it was out of respect for them, that MacDonald didn’t go into more detail in regards to Bobbi’s tragic death.

As someone who isn’t a huge fan of Whitney’s music, and as a millennial who never grew up in the 80s, I still found this documentary appealing and emotional. I don’t recall the exact moment that I started crying while watching the film, but once I did start I was unable to stop. Even as Brit, I am still moved by her performance at the Super Bowl with her soulful rendition of “Star-Spangled Banner”. Most of all, it is seeing her first ever TV appearance singing “Home” from “The Wiz.” that left me with goosebumps, and at the end of the documentary I was left craving for more. This is one seeking out, even if you’re not a fan of Whitney’s music, because it’s a very human story that we can all relate to. It’s the story of following your dream, and trying to find your voice.

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