Compare the tragedy of Icarus to that of Whitney Houston. Like Icarus, whose wax-feather wings scraped the sky, Houston soared. One of the best-selling artists ever. Seven studio albums, six certified platinum or diamond. More than 400 awards, including eight Grammys, an Emmy, and 22 wins at American Music Awards. And that immortal song, “I Will Always Love You,” one of the all-time best-selling singles by a woman.
But like Icarus, who flew too close to the sun and paid with his life, Houston got burned — substance abuse, financial mismanagement, a tempestuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown, family in-fighting. And in 2012 she, too, drowned, in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton.
Houston, though, is not an American Icarus, and “Whitney,” the new documentary from director Kevin Macdonald, is not the ancient myth in stereo sound. If Icarus was damned by hubris, Whitney Houston seems from the film to have been propelled by something else: pain. Urged on by elders who should have shielded her — a protective father at least tried to save Icarus — Houston ascended the summit of superstardom not to graze the heavens but to escape her demons down on earth. Those demons, in part self-inflicted but most not, had haunted Houston since childhood, and their revelation will distress as well as shock.
The documentary tracks its subject from birth to death. Houston was born in 1963 in Newark to Cissy Houston, a successful soul and gospel singer, and John Russell Houston, a well-connected civil servant of dubious integrity. Cissy trained her only daughter rigorously, grooming her heir apparent for success in the family trade. Whitney modeled — in 1981, at age 18, she became one of the first women of color to grace the cover of Seventeen magazine — but her passion was singing. She had a gift. So when legendary music executive Clive Davis heard her perform at a New York nightclub in 1983, he signed the 19-year-old immediately. Later that year Davis himself introduced Houston on “The Merv Griffin Show,” her national TV debut.
Everything was rosy, everything was perfect, everything went according to the plan. “She had an idyllic childhood,” a family friend interviewed for the film recalls of Whitney.
Perhaps. But beneath the charms — that cosmic voice, the supermodel good looks, that brilliant smile, bright enough to stop Manhattan traffic — Houston hid her troubles.
The film lands a bombshell: accusations that Houston, as a child, was molested by Dee Dee Warwick, her soul-singing first cousin, 21 years her senior. The revelation comes late in the film, invariably casting a cloud of darkness over all that came before. At a minimum, the admission offers a powerful if incomplete explanation for Whitney’s demise.
Far-reaching interviews with friends, relatives, and colleagues cover a winding — and, by now, somewhat familiar — terrain of personal scandals and family secrets. Whitney, we learn, first experimented with drugs around age 16, with the blessings of her brothers. She likely had a sexual relationship with Robyn Crawford, her teenage best friend and rumored lover, who does not give a sit-down but gets variously trashed and praised by family and friends. (Homophobia seems to have contributed to the family contempt.) Cissy Houston might have had an affair with her pastor, prompting Whitney to move out after high school. And John Houston might have pilfered money while managing his daughter’s career.
A family affair, a family failure. The life of Whitney Houston seems like a cage match between competing egotists who call one another relatives. No doubt a certain pall hangs over the film, perhaps inevitable with the subject, and aided by the cathartic candor of most interviewees.
The exception — the man who has long frustrated Houston’s fans — is Bobby Brown, ex-husband and dwarf star to Houston’s supernova. Many blame Brown for his ex-wife’s decline, an idea that the film entertains but complicates. For his part, Brown does little to set the record straight. He refuses to speak on much of significance and takes no responsibility for Whitney’s troubled final years. “Drugs have nothing to do with her,” he says, unblinking, a decade and a half after just about everyone on earth thought that matter had been settled. (“Is it alcohol? Is it marijuana? Is it cocaine? Is it pills?” Diane Sawyer asks Houston in an infamous 2002 interview. “It has been,” Whitney says. “At times.”)
By its end, “Whitney” feels sullen, like a funeral, but without the consolation of the eulogy. The magic of Whitney Houston, after all, is that she had such life, that she was and remains for millions the greatest love of all.
Directed by Kevin Macdonald. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 120 minutes. R (language and drug content).Graham Ambrose can be reached at graham.ambrose@