From a distance the story of Whitney Houston is an all-too-common tale of celebrity lore and excess. The pop princess achieves unimaginable fame before getting tangled up with the wrong crwod and sinking to cataclysmic lows. But when examined with depth and context, the extremities of Houston’s life are not only unique, they are practically at a Greek tragedy level of drama and emotional weight.
So it’s not hard to see why a documentarian would be attracted to Whitney Houston or why no one would blink twice at the fact that two prominent documentaries about her would be released within the same year – Showtime’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? and Kevin MacDonald’s Whitney, which is currently seeing a limited theatrical release.
One of the top considerations a viewer has to take into account when judging a documentary is access. Whitney had a completely unfair advantage here as it had the official backing of the Houston estate. Not only did this grant MacDonald the full gamut of archival footage, it also scored him key interviews with important figures like Cissy Houston and Bobby Brown – who are not seen in Can I Be Me? Showtime, while still having its share of reputable interview-ees, clearly hung its hat on and centered their documentary on all-access footage from Whitney’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love World Tour (anytime someone goes out of their way to tell you footage is “never before seen” you know they think it’s a really big deal).
Based on those parameters it could be concluded that Whitney was the better documentary by leaps and bounds. Interestingly enough however, Houston herself leveled the playing field. She simply didn’t have much to say that was all that memorable or telling in either documentary (aside from a hilarious “Paul Abdul ain’t shit” quip in a home movie clip duringWhitney). So the ball was in the proverbial court of the documentarians. How did they want to tell Houston’s story?
Showtime‘s recurring use of the tour footage leaves a certain sense of ambiguity in what to expect the viewer to draw out of Can I Be Me?. The footage can be seen as, among other things, electric, chaotic, turbulent, or self-destructive. It turned out to be Houston’s final major concert tour. Was she safer and healthier when she was busy performing live or did the strains of a major arena tour play a significant role in her strained relationships and substance dependency? Bobby Brown was right there with her onstage and off. Was that a good thing or bad?
Whitney pulled far fewer punches. Not only were there more interviews that help shape a clearer picture of what the director wants you to conclude, there was also the allegation that Houston was sexually abused by cousin Dee Dee Warwick as a child (this was not at all part of Can I Be Me?). MacDonald drops this bombshell over 2/3rds the way through the documentary and it feels like a gut punch. He spends an hour and a half painting a layered portrait of how complicated Houston’s life and struggles were and then out of nowhere we’re presented with a smoking gun, an answer. There’s no way any of us can know for sure if that was the main factor but presenting a simplification so deep into the documentary was contradictory and a poor choice.
There are some celebrated figures where there is a clear hierarchy or even a last word in terms of the best depiction of their life – documentary, biopic, or otherwise. But there is no winner among these two Whitney Houston documentaries. The winner here is the viewer who can watch both films and see two well crafted interpretations of Houston’s story. It’s possible that as time passes on one of these will be conventionally viewed as definitive. But it’s more probable that, given how many mysteries are within the Houston story, there will always be people searching for a different truth.
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