(3.5 / 5)
On a warm Tuesday evening on 3rd May 1988, a colleague of mine and I spent a couple of hours in the company of Larry Wansey. Wansey at this time, was Operation Director of the Dallas Cowboys, but had taken time out to act as Security Director for Whitney Houston’s Moment of Truth World Tour. When researching for this review, I had no idea other than the Cowboys connection, of the man I was talking to.
A celebrated undercover operative for the FBI, he was involved in the Patty Hearst 1974 kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. Later, at the time of 9/11 he was Managing Director of Corporate Security for American Airlines, and was heavily involved in the investigation of that tragic event. I remember him as a very affable man with a good sense of humour.
Why did this conversation take place? Well at this time, I was employed in the In-house security team at the InterContinental Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, and Whitney was not only using this as her base for her 8 night stint at the Wembley Arena, but for her Paris gig as well. She stayed about a fortnight at the hotel and Larry wished to discuss security arrangements for her stay, although I seemed to recall, we talked mostly about other things.
Incidentally, at this time, my ultimate Boss was Stephen Mulligan, who lived in a suite in the hotel with his family, including 3-year old Carey Mulligan. But that is nothing to do with this film, so I shall return to my review.
Shortly into her stay, I bumped into Whitney and Larry, in a lift. Taken aback, I entered rigorously chewing gum for which I gave the excuse that I was making my most recent attempt to quit smoking. Larry had introduced me, so Whitney enquired, how long had I managed to go without a cigarette, and checking my watch, I informed her, about 19 minutes. She shrieked with laughter and a few days later, when I was on duty at a press conference she was doing, she recognised me and with a smile asked if I had still managed to quit smoking to which I responded with a sigh. There ended my short conversation relationship with this American icon – totally forgettable for her but the opposite for me.
What emerges from Kevin Macdonald’s worthy but flawed documentary of the life and death of this iconic American pop star, is her sense of humour – which I think is shown above within my own experience. She loved life and it is all the more sorrowful, that her rapid decline and ultimate death was fueled by a combination of drink and drugs and being surrounded by people, both friends and family who brought this on.
I say flawed, because I think this kind of documentary can only go so far on trying to identify the real Whitney. “All the music. All the stories. All the answers” is the movie’s tagline and it doesn’t really merit any of these assertions. A couple next to me were complaining that there wasn’t enough of her singing so left half-way through. Certainly, all the answers was not provided. It is rather like reading an autobiographical book, where the author naturally only writes about what he/she wishes to know about. Likewise here, people interviewed are selective on what they tell you. Her husband Bobby Brown, flatly refused to talk about her drug abuse.
There is reference to their child Bobbi Kristina Brown on record of having said that she wished to kill her mother. ‘Whitney was probably a good mother at first” we are told, but with the tragic 2015 death of Bobbi Kristina in an uncanny similar way to her mother, this topic is left tantalisingly unfulfilled.
Glaswegian Macdonald is a skilful documentary filmmaker. He won an Oscar in this category in 2000, for “One Day in September” that chartered the hostage taking of the Israeli athletes by militant Palestinian group Black September in 1972. He asks searching questions to a wide range of people associated with Whitney. To get an idea of her early life, he interviews Cissy Houston, her mother. Cissy, (who I also met because she was doing a duet with her daughter, and also came across as a friendly person), is a former singer of note. After a successful career as a backup singer to her niece, Dionne Warwick, (there is only 7 years age difference between them), Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin she is part of a soul dynasty. In addition to her family connection with Dione, she is also aunt to singer Dee Dee Warwick and a cousin to famous opera diva Leontyne Price. From Cissy we learn about Whitney’s gospel singing upbringing and the way her young life was largely protected from the harsher environment that existed in Newark, New Jersey at that time.
Brother Gary provides insightful comments and there is much attention brought to the Svengali type presence of lesbian and possible lover of Whitney, Robyn Crawford. But there is nothing particularly new here.
Probably the coup of this investigative work is the reference to Whitney being molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick.
Macdonald provides an historical aspect as Whitney’s life develops with archival film, using the Newark Riots pf 1967 and images of Ronald Reagan to provide a couple of examples. You do wonder whether this adds to the film, or gets in the way, and, at best, is only moderately entertaining.
This is the third documentary of the life of Whitney. It is a highly watchable film that probably goes as far as it can do at this time, only 6 years after her death. Maybe the definitive documentary on this singer has yet to be completed, and perhaps the passage of time, when others are more forthcoming to reveal material, will make this possible.
“Whitney” is currently showing at Chapter. For schedule and booking tickets, please visit,