Whitney


The Queen of Pop in her salad days.

(2018) Musical Documentary (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, L.A. Reid, Michael Houston, Brad Johnson, Clive Davis, Keith Kelly, Rickey Minor, Lynne Volkman, Pat Houston, Steve Gittelman, DeForrest Soames, Donna Houston, Nicole David, Cinque Henderson, John Houston IV, Joey Arbagi, Babyface, Mary Jones. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

 

On February 11, 2012 the great pop star Whitney Houston was found floating face down in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was the end of an era and the end of a life, one that began with promise which was later fulfilled as she became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and early 90s. She remains the only performer to ever notch seven number one Billboard pop hits in a row – and they were her first seven singles at that. It is a feat not likely to be ever altered. She also is the biggest selling female artist of all time, and holds the biggest selling single (“I Will Always Love You”) of all time for a female artist.

In between her early days and her tragic end, Whitney Houston became a revered public figure although not without controversy. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of legendary pop icon Dionne Warwick, Houston had greatness in her DNA. She was impressive as a singer from an early age singing for her church choir and mentored by her mother who was, by all accounts, an often difficult taskmaster.

After being signed to a contract with Arista Records boss Clive Davis, she rocketed to fame with her debut album which in many ways defined her era. In the mid-80s you really couldn’t go very long without hearing her songs on the radio and while there was some grumbling about how she was being marketed to a white audience (as a light-skinned black girl, she had been bullied as a youngster in Newark where she grew up) she nevertheless grew up to be one of the most formidable talents of her time.

But there were pressures on her to maintain the success and the gravy train that had been created by that success. Most of her family was employed by Whitney (her estranged father who had divorced her mother when Whitney was a young girl was her manager and her brothers were road  managers) and the carefully marketed “good girl” image that had been created for her began to crumble. A marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown put further cracks in the veneer and as the 90s progressed it became apparent that Whitney was using drugs.

The documentary by veteran filmmaker Macdonald isn’t the first on Houston (Showtime aired one just last year) but it is perhaps the most personal; interviews with her family members give us a better picture of the real Whitney than her Showtime doc did. The documentary follows her life relatively chronologically although a revelation about two-thirds of the way through the movie of an incident that happened when she was much younger makes for some dramatic footage but it also throws the flow of the movie askew. There also seems to have been a reluctance on Macdonald’s part to follow up too deeply on that revelation – in fact, he seemed reluctant to follow up on any of the really unflattering aspects of her life at all.

Of course her drug use was the elephant in the room and while it is addressed, Macdonald almost regards it as a corollary to her fame and fortune, almost as predetermined as having paparazzi following her around. There is no footage from her train wreck of a reality show Inside Bobby Brown and when Brown is questioned about his ex-wife’s drug use, he says in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, what the hell did he think that any documentary about his wife’s time with him would want to talk about him with?

The last days of Whitney’s life are particularly hard to watch. While the performance footage of her during the prime of her career is a reminder of just how powerful and beautiful her voice was – and how absolutely she had control over it – footage of her singing during the last year of her life is almost painful. Her voice is raspy and off-key and when she tries to hit the high notes…well, it’s not pretty. It acts as a cautionary tale to any aspiring performer who thinks that they can “handle” drugs.

Still, if you want to look at this as a celebration of her life the film does that quite well. Fans of the late singer can renew their affection for her. Those who weren’t particular fans of hers probably won’t end up being converted to blind admiration but if you know anything about music you absolutely have to respect her voice and her work ethic early on.

I get the sense that we get a little deeper into who Whitney Houston was and that’s a positive. There are a lot of talking heads in this picture and occasionally they go over the same territory perhaps to distraction but this is simply put essential viewing for fans of the diva and of 80s pop music in general. Bring plenty of hankies though; it’s hard to watch the highs without the thought of the lows that were to come and would lead to her end alone in a hotel room drowning in a bathtub, a fate tragically shared by her daughter just three years later.

Still, I don’t know anyone who listens to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” who isn’t instantly uplifted with the joy of being alive. Whitney Houston could do that with her voice and it is absolutely tragic that it was taken away from her – and us.

REASONS TO GO: The final days of Whitney are truly heartbreaking. Some of the performance video from when she was in her prime reiterates how powerful a singer she truly was.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote as documentaries go. Macdonald seemed to be unwilling to ask the tough questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug use and other drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were a lot of interviews that were filmed but never used. Macdonald felt that they were banal and added nothing to the narrative.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Blood of Wolves

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Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales