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How Will We Know? The Quagmire of Two Whitney Houston Movies

Two documentaries about the late pop star reveal the flaws of the posthumous musician doc

Whitney Houston Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you see Whitney on a cinema marquee, you’re not experiencing déjà vu. Less than a year ago, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield offered a first look at the work and life of the celebrated and tragically departed pop singer Whitney Houston with the film Whitney: Can I Be Me; now comes a second documentary from Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void), with a shorter title, on the same subject. This strangely quick double-take marks how the unusual and often painful lives of great musical artists keep grabbing the attention of documentarians and spectators alike. Both Whitney Houston films come on the heels of a string of contemporary posthumous, biographical music documentaries, most notably Asif Kapadia’s 2015 Oscar-winning Amy; Martin Scorsese’s masterful George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011); both of Spike Lee’s Michael Jackson documentaries, Bad 25 (2012) and Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall (2016); and Liz Garbus’s 2015 Oscar-nominated Nina Simone film, What Happened, Miss Simone?

Despite this tradition, having two docs about the same subject seems strange, for rare are such instances when documentarians allow for the subjective nature of their work to become so apparent. Broomfield and Macdonald offer such different versions of the events of Houston’s life as to accidentally remind us of the naivety of the assumption that these movies are objective in the first place. Comparing—and contrasting them with other examples of the genre—presents a unique opportunity to explore the very reasons why such posthumous biographical documentaries are made, and the various ways in which filmmakers have approached them, in good and more questionable faith.

Simone, Harrison, Jackson, Winehouse, and Houston were all astonishing musical talents, worthy of artistic and journalistic appreciation, and the films often draw incidental but interesting connections among their careers. Houston was a groundbreaking artist in many ways, rushing up the charts in the late ’80s with passionate, uptempo pop songs such as “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” to eventually become the most awarded female artist of all time. She also became a star as an African American girl from Newark, New Jersey, in a predominantly white industry, and both Broomfield and Macdonald emphasise her impact on the pop music of the period. Both present close collaborators discussing the 1989 Soul Train Awards controversy, when Houston’s name was booed by an African American crowd who found her successful pop music too ‘white’; later, she would aim to honor her roots, though, notably, her biggest ever hit was a Dolly Parton cover. Similarly, Bad 25 focuses on the many innovations that made Michael Jackson’s Thriller follow-up unique, going through each track in detail to discuss new recording techniques and hear popular artists of today talk about the record’s influence. Garbus, meanwhile, dedicates the core of her film to Simone’s involvement in the civil rights movement and the power and importance of her song “Mississippi Goddam.”

Although the creative and political achievements of these artists explain why documentarians would choose to tell their stories, it’s their idiosyncrasies that help make sense of their existence—and also shape the style of a film like Living in the Material World. Beyond recognizing the craftsmanship of a singer lies the possibility of connecting with his message: With the spiritual outlook he foregrounded, George Harrison proved an ideal object of curiosity for Scorsese, who has demonstrated his interest in religion throughout his career, from the twisted spiritualism of Taxi Driver (1976) to more explicitly religious films such as The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Kundun (1997) and, recently, Silence (2016). Where another director might have stopped at outlining Harrison’s continued success post-Beatles and his eccentric perspective, Scorsese’s understanding of the existential dimension of religious belief makes his documentary a more thoughtful and honorable look at its subject’s life and songs. Spike Lee also relates deeply to Michael Jackson as an African American artist working in a predominantly white industry. Bad 25 repeatedly emphasizes Jackson’s roots in soul music and R&B, as well as his collaborations with filmmakers for his short films (he refused to call them “music videos”), including, incidentally, Scorsese himself, who directed the gritty, New York–set video for the title track.

This idea of an identification between filmmaker and subject doesn’t apply to either of the Whitney Houston documentaries, and the ramifications of this disconnect are complex. Both Broomfield and Macdonald are white men, and their experiences are far from those of Houston; similarly, Asif Kapadia with Amy is a man making a film about a female artist. Interestingly, these three films dedicate much less time to their subjects’ craftsmanship, focusing instead on their difficulties to secure their creative and personal independence. It may be a byproduct of the music industry’s own issues with sexism that Houston and Winehouse are both mostly seen passively accepting the suffocating control of male producers, with a very young Houston chosen to become a palatable African American singer for a white audience, abandoning the gospel standards her mother taught her.

Yet this unfortunate industry standard can’t fully explain how much brighter male artists’ genius tends to shine in biographical documentaries. In fact, Liz Garbus provides the exception to the rule by centring her film on Nina Simone’s exceptional blending of classical music and jazz, while never dismissing her suffering at the hand of her manager-husband Andrew Stroud. Garbus seems to understand the limitations on a female artist presented by a sexist society. Only one moment in Whitney comes close to this acknowledgment (repeated claims that a singer simply had a beautiful voice don’t qualify as dedicated tributes to her skills): when Houston was asked to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991, she requested an instrumentation that would recall Marvin Gaye’s syncopated groove and delivered a rendition that was fully original, at once patriotic and reminiscent of the Black music she grew up with. It was a triumph, but Can I Be Me ignores this event. To have only white men tell the stories of female and especially nonwhite artists limits our understanding of the complex balancing of their art and often unfavorable circumstances.

What Whitney concentrates on most intensely is Houston’s personal life, treating it almost separately from the talent that made her famous in the first place. It creates a kind of imbalance in the telling. The film’s promotional material insists on solving mysteries surrounding the star’s career and demise, with the tagline “All the music. All the stories. All the answers.” Both this film and Broomfield’s present Houston’s childhood in particular as the lesser-known period that can explain her gift and give details about her relatives, friends and addictions, all of which were so far unknown to the general public. Yet what fundamentally differentiates these films from exploitative and indiscreet tabloids is their posthumous nature. The subject’s passing allows for greater and supposedly less morally reprehensible access to their secrets because revealing the skeletons in their closets can arguably no longer harm them (that must have been Kanye West’s justification when he paid $85,000 for a photo of Houston’s drug-ridden bathroom for the cover of Pusha T’s Daytona; the photo figures in both films). Kapadia’s film in fact insists on the tabloids’ responsibility for Winehouse’s growing distress, which, although justified to an extent, allows the filmmaker to rather forcefully and inelegantly position himself as de facto nonexploitative. Not only are Kapadia’s sordid revelations supposedly not reprehensible like those magazines’ distressing voyeuristic tendencies, they also constitute useful information to ascribe blame for her death: The posthumous documentary, however intrusive, becomes a tool to recover an artist’s image, helping audiences make sense of a star’s tragic end.

It is there, at the point when documentaries offer to solve the mysteries of their subject, that they begin to overplay their hand. Both Whitney Houston films suggest similar causes for her debilitating addiction and death—namely, the pressure of expectations and an environment where drugs were normalized—and recognize that no one person is solely responsible. Yet Whitney not only emphasizes the negative influence of Houston’s entourage and brothers (who admit on camera that they introduced her to weed and cocaine) but also introduces a brand new and alarming theory to explain her enduring addiction, through new interviews with friends. Such disparity between Broomfield’s and Macdonald’s versions of Houston’s life highlights the constructed nature of documentaries: Their form isn’t neutral. Neither film includes a new interview with Robyn Crawford, Houston’s long-time best friend, and while Macdonald seems to take this lack of access as reason not to speculate too much about her influence, Broomfield (as is his custom in his previous rock star exposés, Kurt & Courtney and Biggie and Tupac) uses many interviews with people who knew both women to frame Crawford’s eventual departure as intrinsic to Houston’s downfall.

Rare are the documentaries that allow their inherent fabricated nature to show itself, but Whitney doubles down on direct testimonies to consolidate its claims and leave space for a little doubt: Even though Houston’s ex-husband (who notoriously dealt with alcoholism) Bobby Brown refuses to talk about the star’s addictions, having him do so on camera makes Whitney’s condemnation of him much more convincing than that of Can I Be Me, where Brown is talked about only by other people.

The different testimonies that Broomfield and Macdonald gather, and the different explanations and accusations that spring from them, raise the questions of agenda and access. Who benefits from the story of Whitney Houston being told? Only Macdonald’s film has been approved by Houston’s family and estate, and was coproduced by Nicole David, her former film agent. Nina Simone’s estate backed Liz Garbus’s film. Even though the artists themselves have passed away, revealing their secrets might still compromise their entourage and dependants. On the other hand, these same people often grant access to archives and witnesses that a filmmaker alone wouldn’t have obtained; they may also want the truth to come out. Nicole David has said, “I thought it was important that somebody told the story of Whitney so that forever she wouldn’t be this beautiful girl that God chose to have the most beautiful voice and be the biggest star in the world, who then just purposely threw away all the gifts she got, for no reason except to have a good time.” Olivia Harrison was a producer on Living in the Material World, but had refused many offers from producers until Scorsese approached her, because her husband had wanted his story to be told through his own home-made videos. It was thanks to the collaboration of Simone’s daughter that Garbus got to use never-before-seen footage of Simone and her heartbreaking personal diaries.

The suspicious bargain of estate participation can be alleviated (or just concealed?) by a greater focus on testimonies from the subject herself. Neither Can I Be Me nor Whitney show much personal footage of Houston (to be fair, she was known to be secretive) and end up using the same televised interviews, which creates the impression that, in fact, neither film has “all the answers” and each picks its prefered ones. A clearer and more three-dimensional picture of who the artist was appears in Living in the Material World, thanks to Harrison’s home videos, but also to Scorsese’s mesmerizing use of archival footage. One particular tape shows an older Harrison laughing tenderly and singing along to a black-and-white video of one of his band’s earliest television appearances. Because of the Beatles’ breakup, when Harrison was still fairly young, Scorsese’s film benefits from being able to show Harrison reflecting on that unusual youth. This makes for a sort of double refraction of Harrison’s life through two filters, namely his older self and Scorsese’s appreciative, analytical lens. Living in the Material World lets its subject be the author of his own life, and uses the testimony of his friends and relatives to corroborate his own incredibly candid words. Perhaps Whitney Houston’s story doesn’t so easily lend itself to a documentary because she can’t at all speak for herself, and her relatives’ involvement in her career makes it difficult to trust them, however good their intentions may be.

The subject’s death inevitably haunts a posthumous documentary before it even begins, which can explain why it’s often introduced in the first minutes of the film, as in Living in the Material World. Eric Clapton talks about his friend Harrison’s last words while Scorsese shows an amusing home video of his subject appearing behind bright red tulips. The effect is one of melancholy, tenderness, and joy, and immediately positions the film as an homage rather than a tragic story. Can I Be Me, on the other hand, begins crassly with the audio of Houston’s friend’s 911 call, and the voice-over of a relative saying that the singer “died of a broken heart.” In Whitney, Houston’s demise isn’t fully addressed until the final minutes, but the use of the location of her passing and her first television appearance where she sang about “going back home” are equally unsettling. Both of these films perceive Houston’s death as central to her story, instead of simply and horribly the premature ending to her life.

What Happened, Miss Simone? chooses not to cover the last years of Nina Simone’s life, and ends by providing a title card with her years of birth and death, before letting the credits roll on images of the artist in her heyday, happy and singing: Garbus’s purpose was, like Scorsese’s, to celebrate her subject. Spike Lee, however, pushed his homage even further by framing Michael Jackson’s death as the end of not just the life of a unique artist, but of an era. The causes are not presented, but the countless tributes from musicians and fans across the world are. More interesting still, the music carries on: Lee returns to analyzing one more track on Bad,Man in the Mirror,” which became an anthem in memory of Michael Jackson. It also carries a useful message for documentarians: If they want to make the world a better place for artists, they could start by looking at the filmmaker’s reflection.