On a surface level, it’s easy to glance at Nick Broomfield’s documentary on the late great pop princess Whitney Houston and cynically draw comparisons with Asif Kapadia’s groundbreakingly mainstream doc, Amy. The comparisons are perfectly valid, admittedly. Each follows a startling talent lost to addiction at the top of their game, both feature globally-beloved music, and each features a subject whose romantic life features a toxic relationship at its core. The comparisons end there though, with Broomfield cleverly taking his popstress tale into a more knowing terrain by highlighting Houston’s own resistance to the tragic fate historically in store for her.
As with all such ventures, there’s an element of rubber-necking involved in Whitney, though Broomfield’s sharp and riveting chronicle is careful to deal with such elements with a wisely cold and factually-focused angle. Houston’s oft-debated sexuality, for example, is neither dwelt on nor sensationalised in any particular way – with the director’s eventual reveal of her alleged lover having married and had children delivered in a manner that evokes a sadness such an eventuality could otherwise have easily skirted.
Centrally hinged on a wealth of previously-unreleased footage of her 1999 tour, Whitney’s a slick and unmissable peak behind the celebrity curtain that goes on to serve in equal measure as both a lavish tribute and probing introspective look at its subject in a manner not so successfully realised since (wait for it…) Amy. No matter how much you may or not know of Houston’s story, Whitney’s riveting stuff – tightly and exceptionally well crafted by Broomfield, and given an impressive heart and soul by her unflinchingly powerful vocals.
Unafraid to tackle the tragically murkier aspects of Houston’s life, yet sure to take the time to bask in her times of triumph as well, Whitney’s a moving and thoughtful chronicle of a talent taken too soon under horrific circumstance. Circumstance, incidentally, that the addresses with admirable restraint and respect. It’s not a powerhouse piece of pop-art documentary storytelling in the way Kapadia’s film was, though such a flashy venture would doubtless feel ill-fitting with the more glossy veneer of Houston herself, and it’s in delivering a film that balances both that gloss and the rough edges hidden beneath that Broomfield ensures Whitney is every inch the definitive chronicle the woman deserved.
Whitney: Can I Be Me? is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, June 16th; rated 15. Check out the trailer below.