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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Miss Sharon Jones!


The show must go on - no matter what.

The show must go on – no matter what.

(2015) Musical Documentary (Starz Digital Media) Sharon Jones, Alex Kadvan, Austen Holman, Homer Steinweiss, Neal Sugarman, David Guy, Starr Duncan-Lowe, Binky Griplite, Saundra Williams, Joe Crispiano, Ellen deGeneres, Jimmy Fallon. Directed by Barbara Kopple

 

Music is something that has an ephemeral effect on all of us. It reminds us of our past; it strengthens us for our future. It gives us hope when we’re down; it gives us joy when we’re up. It connects us with one another and yet is highly personal and individual. Music redeems us and inspires us. Music for some of us is everything.

Sharon Jones is not a household name but by God she should be. For years with her band the Dap-Kings, she has singlehandedly kept the torch for classic soul music alive. With a delivery like Aretha Franklin and a stage presence like James Brown, Jones has been making a good living for more than a decade now, playing to packed houses of true believers. She’s irrepressible and charismatic in a way that a lot of modern pop stars could never hope to come close to.

In 2013 she was diagnosed with stage two pancreatic cancer and that is where the jumping off point is for this fascinating documentary. We follow along with her treatment in upstate New York, living with a friend who is also a nutritionist. We also see her band, struggling to make ends meet as their fourth album and subsequent tour are delayed while Sharon gets herself well. This adds extra pressure to Sharon who knows that there are a lot of people counting on her; she wants to get back on the road not just because of her love for performing but because she wants her band to get paid. Some of them are having a hard time financially because of Sharon’s illness. The band is family and the close relationship between Jones and her manager Alex Kadvan is truly heartwarming.

The performance clips are among the film’s highlights; we can see her with the spirit upon her at shows, shaking her booty and dancing like she’s possessed by the spirit of James Brown. She’s very cognizant of the roots of soul; in one of the film’s best segments, we see her performing Gospel during her recovery at a Brooklyn church. It’s a moving moment, particularly given her situation. Her faith is surely being tested but it’s no contest; there is a purity to her belief although she doesn’t state it as such. It’s just evident in her demeanor and in her performance. I don’t know that she’s a particularly religious woman but she is certainly moved by the Spirit here.

I am at a loss to decide whether the movie is about Sharon Jones, cancer or something else. Right now my gut leans towards the joy and healing power of music and the indomitable spirit of someone who refuses to let anything get her down. Jones recounts on several occasions how a Sony executive dismissed her as being “too dark, too fat, too short and too old” and how that nearly derailed her career before it started. Only her mama’s reassurance that she was talented no matter what people said kept her going. In fact, the only time Sharon Jones cries during the film is when she thinks about her mom, recently passed, and wishes she could see how strong her daughter was in kicking cancer’s ass.

This isn’t like most movies of this sort; yes, there’s a comeback concert at New York’s Beacon Theater but it’s certainly a work in progress; she forgets the lyrics from time to time and the energy, present in earlier performance clips, is muted a bit, understandably so. However, as we see through a montage of performance clips, as time went by she got stronger and her self-assured stage presence returned. Eventually we would discover that the new album, delayed for release until 2015, would be the first Grammy nomination of Jones’ career, something that she talks about during the movie as being a bucket list goal.

I can’t think that anyone who sees this won’t become a huge fan of Sharon Jones – not just as a performer (although I’m sure that once you hear her strikingly modern yet retro soul tunes you’ll be tempted to pick up an album or two) but more importantly as a person. Her spirit lights up the film like a torch that burns from the first frame to the last. There are musical experiences we have in life that are transcendent; they illuminate us from the outside in and allow us to see something of the meaning of what it is to be human. Sharon Jones represents the best of us and this documentary shows that even the music you’ve never heard of can sometimes lift us beyond what we thought possible and bring us into a very real sense of catharsis. This is an absolutely dazzling documentary.

REASONS TO GO: The music will transport you. The film will uplift you. The experience will remind you that the connection between music and life is an incredibly strong one.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the scenes depicting the cancer treatments may hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some occasional mild profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  At the screening of the film at the 2015 Toronto Film Festival, Jones revealed that the cancer had returned and she would be undergoing further chemotherapy.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: One More Time with Feeling
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: A Man Called Ove