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Movie review: Heartbreaking 'Whitney' documents the rise and fall of a 1980s icon
A photo of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston from the film Whitney." - photo by Josh Terry
"WHITNEY" 3 stars Whitney Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown; R (language and drug content); Broadway

Kevin Macdonalds Whitney might just be the most heartbreaking documentary you see this year.

At a distance, the rise-and-fall narrative of 1980s pop superstar Whitney Houston is pretty simple: Beautiful, classy and talented ingenue Houston rises to superstardom, then meets and marries lesser pop star Bobby Brown and tumbles into a life of drug abuse that spirals to her death in 2012.

Though the trajectory is basically the same, Whitney suggests theres more to the journey. Macdonalds film unfolds chronologically over the course of 120 minutes before doubling back to offer a kind of twist ending that puts Houstons career in a new light.

Early on, we see Houstons Newark, New Jersey, upbringing with her two brothers, Michael and Gary, under the wing of her soul singer mother Cissy and her political power broker father John. After a childhood marked by bullying from her peers because of her lighter skin tone, Houston is groomed by her mother to be more than a simple pop star, held back from performing trendy music for the sake of a more enduring and planned legacy.

Whitney builds into Houstons emergence following a hit debut album with Clive Davis Arista records that makes her Americas sweetheart. But in spite of the clean image, we are told Houston has already become caught up in the sexual indiscretions and recreational drug use connected to the celebrity lifestyle.

While the ensuing problems dont manifest immediately, we see the seeds planted as we continue to watch Houstons rise through the late 80s and into the 90s as she performs her landmark rendition of The Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl and stars alongside Kevin Costner in 1992s The Bodyguard.

By this time shes already married Brown, the late-80s pop artist who sprung from boy band New Edition into a modestly successful solo career before fading into Houstons shadow. As the story moves through the 1990s, Houstons career seems to jump off a cliff as she wrestles to save her marriage and cope with substance abuse. The rest of the film painfully documents her steady decline into addiction.

Macdonalds production offers just enough style to keep pace with the power of Houstons story, which more or less speaks for itself. The director weaves interviews with family members and friends with archival footage of Houston and periodic montages that place the singer amid other iconic images of the 1980s and 90s, including foreboding anti-drug promos.

Interviews with Houstons father and Robyn Crawford, her best friend and suspected lover, are noticeably absent though unsurprising given the content of the film. Based on the amount of loathing both individuals draw from other interview subjects, it would be nice to hear their sides of the various stories.

Houston isnt the first major superstar to suffer a fall from grace, and sadly, probably wont be the last. But that doesnt soften the impact of Whitney particularly late in the film as we see the artist emaciated from drugs during an interview with Diane Sawyer or trying to rasp her way through a comeback concert tour.

Whitney isnt easy to watch, and sensitive audiences will cringe at its periodic R-rated language. Some audiences may also be frustrated by its tendency to focus on the seedy underbelly of Houstons story rather than celebrate her music, but Whitneys message remains tragic either way.

"Whitney" is rated R for language and drug content; running time: 120 minutes.