Whitney Houston’s talent was undeniable, and, sadly, so were her demons. In Kevin Macdonald’s captivating documentary, Whitney, the Oscar-winning director casts a compassionate, but unsparing eye on the multiple Grammy winner, who died in 2012 at 48.
The Miramax/Roadside Attractions film, which opens Friday (July 6) in 400 theaters nationwide, provides a rollercoaster ride through Houston’s life, careening through the glorious rise of her career and the devastating downfall as she spiraled into drug addiction.
Over the course of almost two years, Macdonald talked to more than 70 people for the film, including Clive Davis, who signed Houston to Arista when she was 19; songwriter/producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, and label executive/producer Antonio “L.A.” Reid, but it is the interviews with her family members that provide insight to the private Houston and reveal previously hidden secrets that illuminate her troubled life. Macdonald and his team also unearthed around 30 minutes of previously unseen home movie footage from various sources that showcase an unguarded and vulnerable Houston.
Unlike Nick Broomfield’s 2017 unauthorized documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, Macdonald had the full cooperation of Houston’s estate but retained complete editorial control. He discussed with Billboard his hopes for the film, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May; the balancing act he endeavored to strike and falling in love with Houston all over again.
Billboard: What do you want people to learn about Whitney from this movie?
Kevin Macdonald: I wanted people to see the human side of her and to understand her. For me, I was trying to understand her because she always seemed like such an enigma. I feel after making it and researching it for so long that I do understand a little more and I feel like understanding leads to compassion. I think there was a shortage of compassion around Whitney. There’s a narrative of her self destruction and her willfulness of destroying her own voice that was hard to sympathize with, but now I feel like I’m able to love her again and I hope the audience does as well.
How did you balance showing her talent and rise versus this downfall?
Broadly speaking, the purpose of the movie has got to be to make you love the music and go back to the music. I wanted the first half of the movie to be a very positive experience where you appreciate how talented she was. You get the real pinnacles of her career, The Bodyguard and the huge social significance of that movie and “I Will Always Love You,” and then you also understand and get to learn about “The Star Spangled Banner” and how she had this huge social impact by really reinventing [at the 1991 Super Bowl] what “The National Anthem” means to a lot of people at that moment. Then things start to take a turn for the worse. The film becomes a psychological investigation and a story about trying to understand her and watching the people who are around her — her friends and family — trying to understand her.
There’s a remarkable scene where she is cuddling with her mom, singer Cissy Houston, on a couch acting like a small child, but then it’s very serious about how hard she works.
That’s an amazing scene and I think it’s one of the lucky, lucky finds. A lot of the themes in the movie are present in that one two-minute sequence. You get to see the dynamic with her mother and how sincere Whitney is about her music and her talent and what she’s trying to do and how hard it is for her. I think a lot of people feel, “Oh, Whitney, it’s kind of bubble gum, escapist, it’s not serious music.” But when you see her there in that scene, you see how seriously she took it and how much of an effort it [was].
Parts of the film focus on Houston’s relationship with best friend/lover Robyn Crawford. Why didn’t she participate?
We had a correspondence. She considered being in it. She went back and forth about it, and after several months she declined for her own reasons I can’t speculate about.
Eventually almost all the family members you interviewed ended up on Houston’s payroll and seemed to become enablers. How did that affect her decisions?
None of them had any other things to fall back on that would have been as profitable to them as working with Whitney. One of the things I find most endearing about her is I don’t think Whitney cared about money at all and I think the simplicity of her desires is one of the things that’s very endearing. But everyone around her, they cared about the money, they wanted it. And she kept working because they wanted the money. [Her] father was always saying to her, “Nothing lasts forever. You can’t be lazy now. You’re too lazy, you need to keep going.” I think if it had been up to Whitney, she would have worked hardly at all. She would have worked much, much less. She wasn’t ambitious, I don’t think.
The real victim is Bobbi Kristina, Whitney and Bobby Brown’s late daughter. You make the case that Child Protective Services should have taken her out of their home.
I think there’s no doubt that they should have. And I don’t really understand. I’m not American, but I don’t know why that didn’t happen. I guess because [Whitney’s] a celebrity and she had people protecting her. You can understand and sympathize with someone who had experienced a difficult upbringing, as Whitney has, and it can explain an awful lot about them. But when you become a parent, you are responsible for that person, regardless of what’s happened to you. When you mess it up, it’s hard to forgive. I struggled with that, but now I’ve reached a place of feeling that I can still sympathize with her, but it’s hard.
There’s also the allegation in the film that Houston was molested by her cousin Dee Dee Warwick, who has been dead since 2008.
Well, It’s not really an allegation. I think it would stand up in a court of a law, so I don’t know if it makes it an allegation. You have [Houston’s older brother] Gary Houston saying this person molested her. That makes it something else and I think in this year of #metoo and this post-Weinstein kind of world, it felt like the right thing to do, to actually say who this was and what happened. I think it’s probably the big thing that makes you understand Whitney’s problems. It makes you able to have compassion even at moments when you naturally wouldn’t have compassion because it makes sense of an awful lot of things about her that had been problematic before.
What was your relationship like with her family?
I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have final cut. That was the agreement from the beginning and the family had self interest in that because they realized there was no point in another puff piece about Whitney Houston. There had been enough speculative, inaccurate things written about her. I also think they realized if you cede control to somebody else, the film has more credibility and it helps maybe revitalize Whitney’s image and her career.