Culturally, this interpretation makes sense. Maybe her apparent lack of legible blackness — of grit, stank and swagger — made a striking contrast with his abundance of it. We’ve been meant to find some kind of Faustian bargain in this — the selling of a soul for some soul. That reading of Whitney-meets-Bobby has never satisfied me. It discounts Mr. Brown’s profane sexiness and how it magnetized millions of Americans to him. (I remember wanting his phone number, too.) Maybe Houston’s attraction was opportunistic. Maybe she also got caught in a pop star’s tractor beam. It also disserves how hard it must have been for Mr. Brown to resist Houston, at least the spontaneous, cutting, charismatic version of her these two movies present. Houston was responding to something about this man, and what if it was more than a Boston adolescence spent in public housing?
Mr. Macdonald can see Houston as being greater than her victimhood. Or maybe it’s that he sees her victimhood as being a tragedy greater than any single culprit. The opening minutes come from the set of the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video, the most buoyant (and blond) five minutes Houston ever had in the MTV era. But the first thing you hear is Houston recounting a recurring dream in which she runs from the Devil and is never caught. (Later we hear her tell Diane Sawyer, in a flabbergastingly intimate interview, that she’s her biggest devil.)
While she ruminates, chaos keeps interrupting the images from the video until it rips the buoyancy apart. And what comes bulldozing through is riot footage that’s meant to connect Houston to her upbringing in Newark. You see something like that, and you groan. It’s a cinematic flourish that suggests a director who doesn’t trust his material.
But Mr. Macdonald doesn’t let up. He uses a montage to boil down her explosion into superstardom scored only, at first, to the vocal track of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” So you get the Billboard chart zoom-ins put in a blender with bad-metaphor shots of a rocket launch and footage of the Statue of Liberty, a Coca-Cola commercial and, randomly, Michael Jackson in his “Bad” video. He pulls this move once or twice more (tossing in Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the L.A. Riots), and we’re meant to think of this woman’s turmoil as matching half of the planet’s. But if it feels like too much, it probably should. Here’s an argument for Houston as this tabloid-addled natural resource that we guzzled like soda.
Really, though, you don’t even have to look that far out. Simply probing Houston’s ache gives “Whitney” its hefty woe. Toward the end of the film, he takes us back to her doing “Home” that day on “Merv Griffin.” Seeing it again, after absorbing the biographical shocks, deepens the movie and its subject. Now, you not only hear longing but pain. Whitney from Newark becomes the inverse of Dorothy from Kansas — or, in “The Wiz,” Dorothy from Harlem. Maybe the wicked witches and phony wizards made home seem like such a terrible place that she might actually have felt safer in Oz.