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'Whitney' tells the eternal tragedy of a music legend

What you don't see tells you almost as much about Kevin Macdonald's massively powerful documentary "Whitney" as what you do.

You won't see Dolly Parton, who wrote "I Will Always Love You," the Whitney Houston song that, quite literally enraptured the world. (Saddam Hussein loved using "I Will Always Love You" for his rallies.) Parton, as is her custom, has always been quite droll about the royalties she has derived from Houston's power-pop masterpiece, but this is no movie for drollery. It has no place in the tragic story of a mammoth talent that could never wriggle free from abuse, exploitation and destruction – especially when it came from family and, worst of all, from within.

You won't hear anyone give her mentor Clive Davis the kind of journalistic grilling that such heedless exploitation deserves. (The movie's biggest laugh is record producer L.A. Reid's claim that he never heard any rumors about drugs and Whitney Houston.) Nor will you see a long, thoughtful interview with Robyn Crawford, whom the movie identifies as Houston's lover from their late teens and her partner/manager in her best and most stable years. "Fluid" is how Houston's hugely talented music director Rickey Minor describes Houston's sexuality. You can't help thinking that a public understanding of sexuality then as "fluid" as it is now, might have kept Crawford in Houston's life long enough to save it.

Instead, you see a harrowing gallery of gargoyles with whom she shares DNA – even her mother Cissy Houston, the immortal backup singer who saw to it that her daughter learned everything a truly great singer would need to know. Her father didn't see, at a crucial point, why rehab was necessary. Shortly before his death, he sued her for $100 million.

One of her brothers is quite visibly substance-addled while he is being interviewed. They deny the importance of drugs in her story, even though a cocktail of them was found in her body when she drowned in a hotel bathtub in 2012.

A special space in the Whitney Houston Hall of Infamy will always be reserved for Bobby Brown, husband and R&B mediocrity and partner in a diabolical romance that couldn't have damaged her more. You've got to hear a couple of things here – his violent, grotesque, in-your-face tantrum at Crawford and, in a quieter tone, his explanation to the camera that no discussion of drugs belongs in any documentary film about Whitney Houston.

You don't have to be a Houston fanatic to be walloped by the power of this documentary by the director who had previously made "Marley" and "The Last King of Scotland." It will more than suffice to be a mere admirer of her amazing pop balladry of 1985-1999, some of the most imitated pop music of the last 50 years.

You can't get away from her even though she's been dead for six years. Half of the female singers on reality TV are slavish imitators. So are half of the women singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before sports events. Never mind that the Houston originals – unlike the ubiquitous ripoffs – can still give you goosebumps.

There is, to be sure, a lot of stunning music in "Whitney" beginning with her debut on "The Merv Griffin Show." Let those who insist on doing so dismiss it. Yes, she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards and that great musical genius Al Sharpton once recommended that black people boycott her records because of their blinding whiteness.

Clive Davis has been producing terrific records of power balladry since Barry Manilow's "Mandy." A voice and face like  Houston's were like gifts from the gods to him, to be exploited completely, which he did.

But then almost everything in her life exploited her, beginning with her childhood, in which, says the film, she and her brother were sexually molested by cousin and singer Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne. That gruesome tale is told us toward the end of the film by Mary Jones, the last person to see Houston alive.

Jones will break your heart. She is the longtime assistant whose love is most palpable throughout the movie. "No matter what they take from me," sang Whitney Houston, "they can't take away my dignity."

With her own tragic connivance, her parasites, by the end of her life, took that away, too, almost completely.

Jones, Crawford and this movie seem to be trying to put as much back as they could while stripping bare her profiteers.

It's a harrowing story but, by the time it's over, they've succeeded enough to move you profoundly.

"Whitney"

Four stars (out of four)

Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, Cissy Houston and Clive Davis in Kevin Macdonald's lacerating documentary about the tragic life and influential music of the great power pop diva Whitney Houston. 120 minutes. Rated R for language, drugs and theme, now playing. Opening Friday at the Dipson Amherst Theatre.

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