James Mottram speaks to director Kevin Macdonald about how he made a biopic documentary on the late Whitney Houston and how he revealed the abuse she suffered
The rise and fall of one of America's most famous pop sensations
When Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald was first approached to make a documentary about pop star sensation Whitney Houston, he was uncertain. “I was a bit dubious. I wasn’t a natural Whitney fan. What I knew about her was some of the pop songs which I liked. It was my generation, as it were. But I felt her reputation was weighed down with all the tabloid infamy. I wasn’t sure how interesting it was.”
Macdonald, 51, can be regarded as a heavyweight; he won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary One Day In September, about the 1972 terror attacks on the Munich Olympics, while his feature films include The Last King of Scotland, a biopic of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Indeed, tackling a film about the singer behind such upbeat 1980s classics as I Wanna Dance With Somebody and So Emotional might lack substance.
As for the “tabloid infamy”, Macdonald is referring to the singer’s descent into drug use after a stellar beginning to her career that saw her become one of the world’s best-selling artists. In February 2012, she was discovered unconscious by paramedics in the bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel. A post-mortem examination later concluded that Houston died of accidental drowning due to the effects of cocaine use and heart disease.
Houston’s rise-and-fall was what intrigued Macdonald, particularly when he met the singer’s former agent, Nicole David. “Agents are usually heartless people! The cliché is true!” laughs Macdonald. “And yet here is an agent who really wanted to know: ‘What happened to her? She was the sweetest girl I ever met and what happened? I just don’t understand.’” Being asked to “solve this mystery” was really alluring, he says.
Another element that peaked Macdonald’s interest in undertaking Whitney was a New Yorker article about the African-American Houston’s 1991 Super Bowl rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. “This piece said this was the greatest single performance of the national anthem in American history,” he says. “It changed the meaning of the song. It made it into a song about freedom rather than a song about warfare.”
There were other groundbreaking moments: her interracial kiss with Kevin Costner on hit movie The Bodyguard and performing a concert in South Africa after Nelson Mandela’s release. In other words, there was far more to Houston than tabloid headlines and catchy songs. “I think I wanted to make a serious film about somebody who is considered to be frivolous and tabloid-y.”
While Houston’s life was already the subject of one major documentary by fellow British filmmaker Nick Broomfield (entitled Whitney: Can I Be Me), there was one key difference: Macdonald had the full cooperation of the family, with sister-in-law Pat Houston coming on board as the film’s executive producer. Married to Houston’s half-brother Gary Garland-Houston, Pat was Whitney’s last manager before her death and now runs her estate.
“We had a conversation about her views on Whitney, but also about me making it clear that I wanted to make the film that I wanted to make. I didn’t want to be interfered with,” says Macdonald. “That’s partly what the problem has been with people talking about Whitney. It’s been so controlled. There was a huge marketing and publicity machine around her. She agreed with that.”
Whether it was family, friends or former band members, Macdonald spoke to dozens of people. “It was key that we get the family members to speak openly and honestly and that did take quite a long time.” He repeatedly returned to significant people like Pat, Gary and his brother Michael. “Really that was because they were opening up slowly, slowly, slowly…after so many years of guarding everything, there was quite a shell of protection around them.”
While Whitney is not Macdonald’s first music documentary – he made Marley in 2012, about reggae star Bob Marley – it was “the hardest film I’ve made”, he estimates. “I’ve never experienced anything quite like this film. In terms of the amount of lying, the amount of dissembling. People really didn’t always want to tell you the truth…to get beyond that and get them to trust you was quite tricky and one of the biggest challenges of making the movie.”
When the film premiered in Cannes earlier this year, it generated controversy with the shock allegations contained within that Whitney had been abused by her cousin, the soul musician, Dee Dee Warwick. “Very, very early on in the process, I began to get a sense from watching the interviews and archive [footage] with Whitney that there was something profoundly wrong there, something psychologically disturbed about Whitney,” says Macdonald.
Surmising she may have been abused, he began to ask around, receiving flat-out denials. “The family got very annoyed with me asking the question.” When he later talked to Gary, the sibling revealed his own abuse. Macdonald also spoke to Whitney’s close friend and assistant Mary Jones. “In the first interview, she sorted of hinted that there was a key to understanding Whitney.” Jones went on camera again to talk about the singer and how she’d revealed to her that she was “molested at a young age” by a woman.
“In her mind, this was the burden that Whitney had carried her whole life which explained everything,” says Macdonald. It was the last interview he did, just two weeks before he locked final cut. “That, in a way, re-shaped the whole film,” he says. “It is now a film about childhood sexual abuse.” In response, Houston’s mother Cissy and Dee Dee’s sister, the famed singer Dionne Warwick, released a statement calling the film “rumour, innuendo and heresay” and the idea of this abuse “unfathomable”.
For Macdonald, he may have finally uncovered the key to Whitney’s pain. “It unlocked the mystery of Whitney’s peculiar behaviour and her unhappiness,” he says. But in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandals “and people trying to be open about these experiences”, it’s about more than just digging into Whitney’s past.
“If you talk about [incidents of abuse], then maybe they won’t happen as much in the future.”
Whitney opens in UAE cinemas from Thursday.