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‘Whitney’: The Story Behind the Controversial New Whitney Houston Doc

How filmmaker Kevin Macdonald crafted what may be the definitive look at the singer’s downfall – and why he decided to name her abuser

whitney houston documentary

The story behind the controversial new documentary on Whitney Houston – and why director Kevin Macdonald felt he needed to name her abuser.

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Whitney Houston’s longtime movie agent Nicole David had two key goals while producing the documentary Whitney (in theaters July 6th) about the singer: “I wanted to show the world she wasn’t just this beautiful girl with the best voice who pissed it all away,” she says. “I also wanted to understand myself how this blessed, talented person wound up dead. I never understood it – and I was there.”

So she hired filmmaker Kevin Macdonald – best known for directing the Bob Marley documentary Marley and the Oscar-winning bio-drama The Last King of Scotland – to helm the project. At first, the director had little interest. “I largely knew [Whitney] from the tabloid coverage,” he says. “To be honest, I was put off by her because she’d become such a train wreck. I knew her songs growing up in the 1980s, but I found it very hard to sympathize with her.”

But after meeting with David and Whitney’s sister-in-law Pat Houston, who now runs the singer’s estate, Macdonald began having second thoughts. They convinced him they wanted a portrait that told the unvarnished truth about Whitney’s difficult life. “When you’re dealing with a big family estate and record companies on a big budget movie, there’s a lot of room for people with agendas to get difficult,” he says. “I told them I’d only do it if I was given final cut.”

Directors hired to create documentaries by a large estate rarely get such a deal, but Pat Houston didn’t take much convincing. “We gave him final cut because we knew he had integrity,” she says. “Of course some toes will get stepped on and you may not like something of the things that are being done. But you have to look at the bigger picture. We wanted to do what was right.”

Once the deal was hammered out, Macdonald and his team had the overwhelming task of sorting through five-decades’ worth of photos, videos and audio recordings from Houston’s life, as well as sitting down with as many people as possible for interviews. And while the estate had thousands of hours of footage drawn from concerts, public appearances and backstage film shoots, the filmmakers quickly discovered that most of it was unusable. “Almost all of it was repetitive and unrevealing,” he says. “Whitney gave very few interviews, and the ones she did do were very superficial. She wasn’t comfortable in front of the camera and she usually just did them to sell something.”

They did, however, find the outtakes from the 1992 TV special Whitney Houston: This Is My Life, along with other candid behind-the-scenes footage shot by hairdressers, choreographers and record executives throughout her long career. They include a private backstage moment in the early 1990s where Houston complains to her mother about Paula Abdul’s recent hits (“she’s singing off-key on the record”) and, in later scenes, clearly struggling with the substance abuse problem that ultimately ended her life.

Extensive interviews with her family members shed light on Houston’s difficult childhood and other key moments from her life. Even her mother, singer Cissy Houston, was willing to talk about her daughter for the camera, though Macdonald ultimately cut most of it from the movie – with the exception of an early scene where she visits the church the family attended when Whitney was a child. “Her memory was terrible,” says Macdonald. “I think there’s a lot of psychological repercussions from the trauma she’s been been through. I didn’t want to push her because she was clearly in pain.”

As for Houston’s ex-husband Bobby Brown, he was eager to talk about their courtship and good times together. But he clamped up completely when the subject of drugs came up; Brown can be seen in the movie stonewalling when pressed on the topic. “There’s a certain power to be had by his refusal to talk about what [was] clearly a key part of her life and what destroyed her,” says Macdonald. “To me, he seems like a person that’s not able to have any perspective on that.”

Months after the interview, the director gave it one final shot. “I called him up and said, ‘Bobby. I don’t think you’re going to like the interview,'” he says. “‘Most people were much more straight forward and honest than you. I think we should do it again.’ We did talk about about that, but in the end, for various annoying reasons, it didn’t happen. What those annoying reasons were, I won’t say.”

Whitney’s best friend Robyn Crawford was also a source of frustration for the filmmaker. They were side-by-side during the height of Houston’s fame; she’s a constant presence in the archival video seen in the documentary. But Crawford wouldn’t sit for an interview. “We e-mailed about it back and forth,” says Macdonald. “She said she’d seen my previous work, said she liked it and she’d consider it. Then she came and went for several months, frustratingly, and in the end decided she didn’t want to do it.”

Houston’s extremely close relationship with Crawford has lead to persistent rumors that they were secretly lovers, at least for a brief period of time. Some fans even believe that much of the singer’s pain came from hiding her true sexual orientation from the world. For all his digging, however, Macdonald says he uncovered no evidence that this was, in fact, the case. “I don’t subscribe to the thesis that Whitney’s life is all about that she was gay and couldn’t be who she wanted to be,” he says. ” She was fluid. She liked sex. She may have had other sexual relationships with women, but the idea she was a gay woman is an oversimplification.”

Whitney HoustonVarious

Whitney Houston as a child.

The biggest revelation from the film is the allegation that Houston was molested as a child by her aunt, singer Dee Dee Warwick. Multiple people claim that Whitney told them about the abuse; her brother, Gary, has contended that Dee Dee, who died in 2008, molested him as well. Naming his subject’s alleged abuser was an especially difficult decision for Macdonald to make. “After consulting with people that are experts in that area, particularly in the environment we’re in now, it felt like the right thing to do,” he admits. “The idea being [that] it encourages other people to come out and talk about it, to not be scared of it. It takes power away from the person that did the abusing.”

For Pat Houston, revealing this extremely painful chapter from her family’s history was extremely difficult – especially since Dee Dee’s sister Dionne Warwick and aunt Cissy Houston are still alive. “I knew that was going to be a very difficult thing for them to hear,” she says. ” It was very, very difficult for me. Some things are private, personal and it’s none of some folks’ business. But this is something that isn’t just a family problem. It’s a community problem – and then it becomes America’s problem and the world’s problem. It’s an issue that needs to be dealt with, so I had to step out of myself and think about people that were harmed.”

But even though the movie reveals this horrible truth from Houston’s childhood and shows how drugs ruined her life and ultimately ended it, it still devotes plenty of time to her artistic genius. Special attention is paid to her performance of “The National Anthem” at the 1991 Super Bowl. “Obviously we talk a lot in these interviews about revelations and the dark stuff, but I wanted the first half of the movie to be a celebration of her talent,” says Macdonald. “She didn’t write songs, but she was in control of the creative process and she revolutionized music. With [her rendition of] ‘The National Anthem,’ she forever changed the way that song is understood and the way it’s sung. She took it from a song that is associated with war and racism to a song which is a celebration of freedom.”

Once Nicole David saw a final cut of Whitney, she was able to understand Houston’s life in an entirely new way. “I learned that I probably really never had the chance to really help her, which I tried so hard to do,” she says. “I learned that everything I did was very insignificant, even though I felt it was really big at the time and I felt I was really fighting. But when I saw the movie, I really saw how unimportant everything I tried to do was. There was a much more powerful narrative that I did not understand at the time.”

In This Article: Documentary, Whitney Houston

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