Movie of the week: Whitney
Maybe it wasn’t so wise to tag Kevin MacDonald’s heartbreaking new doco on Whitney Houston’s troubled and tragic life as “The untold story. For the first time” Sure, this is the “authorised” version – meaning the family estate co-operated – whereas they didn’t for Nick Bloomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me last year. But most of her fans will have seen that film, and both cover much the same ground in broad strokes, with slight difference in emphasis. Undoubtedly MacDonald has been able to dig deeper though – he had far greater access and more in the way of archival footage. Plus of course, he’s been able to name the family member who abused her as a child – although what that sordid detail adds to our understanding of the heart-wrenching final fifteen erratic and wretched years of the singer’s life is arguable. He waits until we’re two-thirds in before dropping the bombshell, and then just leaves it hanging.
Is that the key to her otherwise inexplicable decline? Maybe, for how else do we explain that someone who had it all, a multimillionaire and one of the world’s biggest and most acclaimed recording stars also suffered chronic depression, was a compulsively heavy drug user, went in and out of rehab repeatably but always relapsed and then drowned in a cocaine-induced stupor in a bathtub at the age of 48? Two bio-docs in (and surely a feature film on the way) at least now we have a smoking gun – one a lot more convincing than the fashionable notion that she was somehow a victim of homophobia in being unable to acknowledge her long time relationship with friend and business manager Robyn Crawford (who once again, remained tactfully silent and missing for this film). Unbelievably though, Whitney’s own daughter (who suffered shameful neglect from both her mother and father Bobby Brown) died exactly the same way just 3 years later.
Hearing her transcendent voice and feeling the magnificent radiance of her presence – before those demons took over one more time is well worth experiencing again, even if it is for the second time. Besides, it has to be said – this is the better film. Watching the early concert and interview footage, its near impossible not to be in awe of the beautiful young woman who the family knew as “Nippy”, and be blissfully carried away by those gloriously happy songs. Her brothers had already introduced her to drugs as a young teen though, and later (along with most of her family, friends and assorted hangers-on, most of whom give self-serving “it wasn’t my fault” accounts) were on her payroll – no doubt for the same purpose. Her own spongeing father sued her for $100 million just before he died. But even if the results of those sorts of dysfunctional relationships are banal and predictable, from the very opening bars of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” near the beginning of the film, a song whose yearning romantic innocence unfailingly gives me goosebumps, I didn’t mind going through it all again. Only this time I prayed for a different ending. M from July 26. Local inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★★★
In the US, the 85-year-old small-l liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is quite a hero, with (surprisingly), quite a young fan base. She’s been labelled “The Notorious RBG”, a name she’s apparently quite happy with (a curious case of cultural appropriation, surely). There the appeal a film like Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s reverential hagiography can be explained – in the wake of Trump the American left is desperate for heroes, no matter how unlikely. There’s nothing particularly wrong with their film, it does an adequate job of outlining the workaholic judge’s life and times, her fight for gender equality, her progressive accomplishments and astonishing personal drive – if somewhat routinely. We get to see the diminutive octogenarian working out, going to the opera and its revealed her one failing is that she’s not much of a cook.
Over here the film’s release into inner west art-house cinemas is a little strange – its not as if what happens in the US Supreme Court has much relevance to us here in Australia. Nor does it have any insights on the workings of the court, or the Trumpian political dynamics at play. But maybe its distributor has calculated correctly, Crikey’s acerbic pet Marxist Helen Razer reported seeing “a large group of white women approaching midlife waiting for a session of RBG,” the sort of people who hero-worshipped Julia Gillard and Gillian Triggs. Though true to form, she only reported that to sneer. PG from July 26 at Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown ★★1/2
Also opening this week
Its official, at least according to ABC-RN’s Jason Di Rosso, NZ does comedy better than Australia! Well we knew that, but if proof were needed, the deliriously mad opener of the Sydney Film Festival The Breaker Upperers is getting a wide release this week, and is well worth seeing. Our review here
Meanwhile, digital disruption continues apace. Many of the smaller film distributors are now only providing online screeners (always infuriatingly watermarked) for small screen viewing at home rather than conventional media previews in theatres, and that’s the case with Funny Cow and Maya the Bee: The Honey Games this week. Or in case of the bigger companies like Roadshow with releases they deem “minor” (Beirut, from Bourne writer John Gilroy and starring Jon Hamm in his best role since Mad Men), not doing anything at all. Well OK then, one way to combat the ever-onward march of Netflix is just surrender…
Reviews – Russell Edwards