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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Presenting Princess Shaw


A pop Princess in the making.

A pop Princess in the making.

(2015) Documentary (Magnolia) Samantha Montgomery, Ophir Kutiel. Directed by Ido Haar

The American Experience

Dreams come in all shapes and sizes. Some are ephemeral things, ideas that we vaguely like but really don’t do anything about so they remain formless. Others are those we work actively towards and put our hearts and souls into. Those are the ones more likely to come true.

Samantha Montgomery, whose stage name is Princess Shaw, has a dream of being a singer. And not for nothing; she has a legitimate voice, beautiful and evocative. She’s also a crackerjack songwriter, her songs filled with longing and emotion so much so that they reach out and grab the listener, take hold of them by the scruff of the neck and don’t let go until they feel the same thing Princess is feeling.

Samantha works by day in a New Orleans elderly care facility. She is upbeat and cheerful and seems to love working with her patients and caring for them. Some nights, she goes to Open Mike shows at local bars, and once in awhile sings at nightclubs and parties. She uploads a capella versions of her songs onto YouTube where she has a channel that several hundred subscribers check out from time to time. She labors in obscurity but still hopes that one day, she’ll be discovered.

What she doesn’t know is that she already has been. Ophir Kutiel, who goes by the name of Kutiman, has made some Internet fame for himself as a remixer, taking elements from YouTube music videos, cutting and pasting them together to make a cohesive song – all without the knowledge of the participants until the new video is posted. He has, against all odds, discovered the work of Princess Shaw and has been captivated by it. He takes one of her songs, “Give It Up,” and layers percussion, guitars, brass and piano – and creates a song that has a timeless urban pop feel to it, taking elements of hip-hop, jazz, R&B and a little bit of rock and roll to make something really tasty. You can see the results of his efforts here.

&Israeli documentary filmmaker Ido Haar originally was going to look at all of the various components of the video but once he met Princess Shaw he knew he didn’t need any of the other musicians. Her story is compelling, with a background of being sexually abused as a young girl and continuing on into adulthood into an abusive romantic relationship, she has weathered some tough times. We find out most of this later on in the film; she’s really a blank slate as the film begins, which is a wise move. We only know the longing and loneliness she feels through her music.

We never find out what Samantha/Princess thinks is the reason she’s being followed by a camera crew. She was unaware of what Kutiman was up to although Haar was certainly in the know. I think that knowing what she thought was going on would have been beneficial to the film, but that’s really nit-picking. Then again, it would make some of what’s going on feel a little less staged.

Princess Shaw has an amazing voice but it is her heart that is at the center of this film. Not only is she upbeat despite the obstacles and difficulties she’s had to face, but she shows tenderness and appreciation for her patients, her family and those musicians she encounters around town (midway through the film, she moves to Atlanta to try and make her dream happen). One of the most special moments in the film is when Montgomery hears the Kutiman music video for the first time…and watches in absolute astonishment as the video approaches a million views.

The movie ends with Princess being flown to Tel Aviv to perform at a Kutiman concert there. She is absolutely delightful, hugging every musician like a long lost friend, taking delight in being somewhere she never thought she’d be. The concert is a bit anticlimactic, but it’s clear she’s a performer with a capital P. I don’t know what happened with her career after filming ended, but I’d like to think she’s getting representation and getting ready to record with musicians…and maybe touring. I’d pay to see her, and I don’t go to any concerts anymore.

It is stupid difficult making it in the music industry. People long to be stars but few are willing to put in the work to make it happen and fewer still have the talent to make it happen. Even if you have both of those qualities, that’s no guarantee you’ll make it in a business that’s as cutthroat and as insular as the music industry. As anyone who’s seen any episodes of shows like American Idol or The Voice can attest, the world is full of people with the dreams of pop stardom. It’s nice to see a movie about someone who actually deserves it.

REASONS TO GO: Truly this is cinema of the heart. Montgomery has an amazing effervescent personality and a tremendous talent.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally feels a bit staged.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes and a little bit of mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Haar’s 2007 documentary 9 Star Hotel previously appeared on the acclaimed PBS documentary series P.O.V. in 2008.
BEYOND THE THEATER:  Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, FandangoNow
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Idol
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The American Experience continues!

Amy


Amy Winehouse belts one out.

Amy Winehouse belts one out.

(2015) Musical Documentary (A24) Amy Winehouse, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), Tony Bennett, Mitchell Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil, Juliette Ashby, Nick Shymansky, Lauren Gilbert, Salaam Remi, Sam Beste, Andrew Morris, Mark Ronson, Pete Doherty, Blake Wood, Janis Winehouse, Raye Cosbert, Guy Moot, Darcus Beese, Tyler James, Monte Lipman. Directed by Asif Kapadia

The music industry is a harsh, unforgiving world. It chews people up and spits them back out, rarely unscathed. Even those who reach the grail of commercial success don’t go untouched.

Amy Winehouse was a little girl with a big voice, singing with Britain’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra. We see her as a teen, singing happy birthday to and with her friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert. A Jewish girl from working class London, Amy’s parents divorced when she was quite young.

She began writing songs in which she exorcised her demons. Deeply personal, her music was all about what was going on in her life at that particular moment. She preferred to work in a jazz idiom but her music would eventually turn more pop and once her song “Rehab” hit it big, there would be no stopping her. Except that the Back to Black album that her hit came from would be the last album she’d ever record.

Her brash personality hid a very fragile girl who was surrounded both by people who looked out for her – her friends Ashby and Gilbert, as well as Nick Shymansky, her first manager – and people who didn’t have her best interests at heart.

In fact, some of those around her were actually like poison to her, in particular her husband Blake Fielder-Civil who she was head over heels over, but who led her down a path that included addiction to hard drugs and binge eating and drinking (Winehouse suffered from bulimia dating back to her teenage days). Fielder-Civil comes off absolutely horribly in the movie; after doing a stint in jail, he sees video of his wife with another man; he divorces her for infidelity, smugly proclaiming that he was handsome and young, what was he doing with a skank like that? Yes, by that time the effects of her addiction were starting to show. I guess I wanted to take that silly hat he likes to wear and shove it where the sun don’t shine only after smashing that smug expression in. What a pretentious, self-centered waste of human flesh.

Her own father doesn’t come off unscathed. He appears unconcerned about the issues his daughter has, advising her not to go to rehab before the fame set in and seemingly more concerned about his own limelight and the gravy train his daughter provided him. The Winehouse family initially cooperated with the filmmakers, providing plenty of home video footage as well as granting on-camera interviews for the project but eventually rescinded that cooperation when it became clear that the filmmakers were not portraying them in a flattering light. Mitchell Winehouse has gone on to say that the movie doesn’t capture Amy the person very well and dwells overly much on the lurid tabloid events and in that he does have a point.

Truth be told, I was never much a fan of her music; her voice is a bit too brassy for my taste, but that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize talent when I hear it. The woman had a true gift, understanding phrasing like few modern singers do. Tony Bennett, with whom she recorded a duet shortly before she died, compared her to Ella Fitzgerald and I would think that he would know a thing or two about it.

Watching her transformation from a vibrant, promising performer into pop superstardom and from there to drug-addled tabloid fodder is simply painful. We see her besieged by paparazzi, flashbulbs going off like mortar explosions around her, blinding the poor woman so that she couldn’t see where she was walking. The tabloid press are drawn to bad boys and girls like the bottom feeders they are, and how horrible must it be to know that they are out there 24/7, awaiting a chance to catch you at your worst – because the people who read that drivel want to believe the worst about you.

At the end of the day, Amy Winehouse had a hand in her own demise – it is absolutely chilling to hear her tell her friend Juliette that the celebration for her Grammy win was “boring without drugs.” At that point, even had you not known what her fate was to be (found dead on July 13, 2011 of alcohol poisoning) you would have known that she was not long for this world. Her voice stilled, her muse gone, one can’t help but wonder what she might have accomplished had she lived.

But then, that’s the nature of the muse. It doesn’t always treat those who are inspired by it kindly. Amy Winehouse was an amazing talent who became the poster child for excess and addiction by the time she reached her mid-20s. She went from the Next Big Thing to the butt of all sorts of jokes and the sad part was that those who should have been watching out for her were instead feeding the flames that were consuming her. This documentary is chilling in that regard but as a cautionary tale, it is one that we have seen many times on the price of success. And it’s a story that is likely to be told again someday with yet another prodigy; that’s the real tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: Heartbreaking. Wonderful archival footage for fans. Even non-fans will appreciate.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the footage of her descent into drug-addled junkie status is hard to watch. Spends more time on the more lurid tabloid aspects of her life than on her music.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, drug references and usage, and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winehouse is a member of the “27 Club,” a group of rock stars who all died at the age of 27. Other members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Was Not Made For This World
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Certified Copy