Is there anyone among us who isn't familiar with the tragic trajectory of Whitney Houston? Born to gospel-music royalty, a child prodigy whose voice and graceful demeanor propelled her into superstar status as pop's reigning diva, Houston ultimately died alone in a bathtub at 48, after years of abusing cocaine.
That grievous arc is drawn with intelligence and sensitivity in "Whitney," Kevin Macdonald's documentary that portrays Houston as an artist, a cultural phenomenon and, in the end, a victim of unscrupulous and abusive family members as well as a trainwreck-addicted tabloid culture.
Like 2015's "Amy," about Amy Winehouse, "Whitney" threatens to be another formulaic rise-and-fall tale of a little girl lost to her own self-destructive impulses. But, like that film, "Whitney" transcends the conventions of the form, delivering a powerful reminder of the breathtaking talent she possessed and the monumental future that was squandered on the altar of selfishness and greed.
Although "Whitney" follows a familiar structure, Macdonald infuses it with artful editorial choices, marking the chapters of Houston's life with brief but vivid montages of the times in which she lived: The film begins at her zenith during the go-go Reagan years of the 1980s but quickly cuts to jagged images of the 1960s images of riots in Newark, where she was born in 1963. The film traces her beginnings singing in the black church, often alongside her mother, Cissy, a gospel star in her own right. Her father, John, was an operator in corrupt local politics, and the two were rarely home, a fact that circles back in "Whitney" with horrifying implications.