Few singers have had the power and presence of Whitney Houston. Her volcanic blast of a voice had a singular, cut-through-your-heart clarity. She was beautiful and beloved, a pop culture phenomenon and a hit machine.

As effervescent as her music could be, the memories are bittersweet. Her downward spiral into drug abuse led to her death in 2012 at age 48, drowning in a hotel bathtub.

Whitney, the new documentary from director Kevin Macdonald, reminds us of her joyous talents, but also takes an unflinching look at her undoing. It’s more bitter than sweet, less a celebration of her life and more of a lament.

Her family and friends are on hand to walk us through the tragic tale of “Nippy” as they called her. After a childhood shuttled between various temporary homes with her two brothers while her mother, Cissy, toured as a backup singer, Houston was devastated by her parents’ affairs and eventual divorce.

Her mother pushed her to develop her voice. In 1985, when she was 21, Houston’s self-titled debut album sold 22 million copies worldwide and spawned three No. 1 singles: How Will I Know, Saving All My Love for You and Greatest Love of All.

More megahits followed: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, So Emotional, Didn’t We Almost Have It All. Her Super Bowl rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner in 1991 remains a classic. I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard soundtrack in 1992, spent 14 weeks at No. 1.

Upper-stratosphere fame and adulation were followed by the inevitable backlash. She was criticized for not being “black enough.” The Rev. Al Sharpton dubbed her “Whitey Houston” and called for black people to boycott her records. Rumors spread that she was romantically involved with her best friend, Robyn Crawford, and she capped it all off by marrying bad boy Bobby Brown. She had a daughter (Bobbi Kristina, who also met a sad, tragic end at age 22) and apparently did a lot of drugs.

Hollywood and the music industry are littered with rags-to-riches-to-addiction-to-death stories. Such sagas come replete with hangers-on (in this case Houston’s brothers Michael and Gary), enablers and drug providers (the brothers again), corrupt managers (in this case her father, John).

Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, One Day in September) attempts to find out what kinds of demons Houston was battling.

In addition to her family, friends, managers, music collaborators and Bodyguard co-star Kevin Costner, we hear from music executives Clive Davis (who claimed to have “discovered” Houston) and L.A. Reid (who claimed to have known nothing about her drug problems). One of the most memorable moments comes from Brown. When he refuses to talk about his ex-wife’s drug use, the conversation quickly dries up.

There is a lot to unpack in Whitney, including a bombshell: the name of the older cousin who Houston claimed molested her as a child: Dee Dee Warwick. (Warwick, sister of singer Dionne Warwick, died in 2008.)

As compelling as Whitney can be at times, it’s also uneven. You get the headlines of Houston’s financial success and woes, but no hard facts. Much of what really happened in her life remains hearsay and speculation. Macdonald mixes clips of Houston’s singing with quick flashes of news footage from the era — It’s Ronald Reagan! It’s the space shuttle disaster! — but without any context. The clips seem gimmicky, like an unnecessary collage.

Where Macdonald does succeed is through his amazing access to the principals in Houston’s life. Seemingly everyone is on hand, with the stark exception of Crawford. Macdonald had the cooperation of the Whitney E. Houston Estate and access to stacks of home videos, which provide several unflattering behind-the-scenes glimpses of Houston and Brown.

There are also chilling and telling moments from the archival footage, such as Houston’s interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer in 2002. She was trying to make a positive PR comeback, and instead dropped her famous “crack is whack” quote, explaining “I make too much money to ever smoke crack.” When Sawyer asked which was the biggest devil — alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or pills — Houston said, “The biggest devil is me.”

Even with Macdonald’s research and parade of talking heads, there are questions about Houston and her demons that remain unanswered. Whitney scratches the surface and maybe that’s as deep as we’re going to get.

Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.