As well as being one of the biggest recording artists in history, Whitney Houston was a feast for the tabloids. Drug problems and relationship dramas were as talked about as her once in a generation voice. In his new film, Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald tries to find the Whitney behind the public image and discover what led such a talented person down a path that ended in her death at just 48. We spoke to him about the Whitney very few knew.
What was it about Whitney Houston that made you want to explore her life in a documentary?
Initially I didn’t think it was right, actually. I was approached by the producers and at first I said I wasn’t really interested. They said, ‘The story is probably more interesting than you think’. I met with a woman called Nicole David, who was Whitney’s film agent for most of her career and became very close to her. She said, ‘I never understood Whitney. I loved her more than any client I ever had, but I never understood her and I don’t know why she ended the way she ended’…That made me think, ‘Ah, there’s an enigma here’.
What was your impression of Houston before that? Why were you not interested?
I was a teenager in the 80s and I was always a bit dismissive of Houston, as I think a lot of people who considered themselves ‘cool music fans’ were. She was poppy, bubble gum, making music not considered very cool. But you can’t help but dance to some of those songs, or feel emotionally affected by ‘I Will Always Love You’. Then I read an article in The New Yorker that talked about Whitney had changed forever the way ‘Star Spangled Banner’ [which she performed at the 1991 Superbowl] was sung and understood, particularly by African Americans. She turned it from a song about militarism and oppression to a song about freedom. I couldn’t think of another artist who’d had that kind of cultural impact with one song. That made me think, maybe there’s something musically here that is special… Also, toward the end of her life she became a very bleak, tabloid figure who became quite hard to sympathise with. It was hard to keep patience with someone who seemed determined to destroy the gift they had. I think there was something in wanting to redeem her from that.
Where did you start in trying to tell her story?
Just talking to people. I interviewed 75 people in the end, some of them three times. I put everything on camera… My editor described it as like an inquest. You had some people avoiding telling the truth, some were angry. The family started to open up after a while. Her two brothers started off not wanting to be involved and then by the end of it they both said it was like the therapy they never had.
The film goes really deep into Houston’s family life, including revelations about abuse she suffered and an affair her mother had. How did the family react to that?
Right at the beginning of the process, they were onboard and I told them that they only way this works is if I have final cut. There were certain things, like finding out that Cissy had an affair with a preacher and that there was sexual abuse [of Whitney Houston by Dee Dee Warwick], that upset them. But I think for most of them – I’m not speaking for Cissy, because I think she felt differently – they felt it was the right thing to do.
There are clips in the film that show a side of Houston that were quite a contrast to the perfect pop star image we usually saw. There’s one in particular where she’s talking to her mum and laying into Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, when they’re beating her in the charts. Where did you find your footage?
A variety of sources. That particular clip is from the family’s archives. It was filmed by Robyn Crawford. There were tapes of stuff she shot with Whitney in 1990 that were intended for a film that was never completed. Her hair person had hours and hours of stuff she’d filmed from about 1998 to 2008. There was stuff her A&R guy had. People just started to come out of the woodwork with interesting home movies and photographs. That stuff tells you more than the interviews because you get that intimate feeling and feel like you’re there, seeing the family dynamic and the real Whitney. That clip you mention feels like a microcosm of the whole film in two minutes.
You mention Robyn Crawford. Her story feels like the missing part of the puzzle. The film says they were in a relationship for years and they’d been close since childhood, so it seems like she’d be the person who knew Houston best. She’s never talked about her on film. What efforts were there to speak to her and how much did you feel the lack of her?
There was a lot of effort. She and I exchanged emails for a while. She considered doing it. She said she’d always promised she’d never do anything like that, but she’d liked some of my previous films, so maybe this was the time to do it. We went back and forth for several months, but then she decided against it and there was no shifting her. That was a big shame…I think the film became about the family, and while she’s part of that family in a way, she’s not at the heart of it.
Do you know if she’s seen it?
She hasn’t. I’m not sure if she wants to.
You spoke to the other person she had a major relationship with, Bobby Brown. He came across very hostile on screen. What was your impression of him?
I think you can see. There’s not much I can add. He’s resistant and in denial. Overall, I think Bobby comes out of the film fairly well. When you talk to people who were around them you see that Bobby was as much sinned against as sinning. He wasn’t the person he was painted to be and Whitney wasn’t the innocent princess she was painted to be. The tabloid perception was wrong, about lots of things. Like the relationship with Robyn. The rumour was that Whitney was gay and forced by the music industry to be straight. It’s nonsense. Whitney was bisexual or fluid. She loved Robyn and then she loved Bobby. The idea she didn’t love Bobby is patently ridiculous. I think that’s one of the interesting things, that so much of her life was gossiped about and stories became gospel that just weren’t true. The idea that Clive Davis created her and she’s a product of the white music industry doesn’t bear scrutiny when you talk to people. She was the product of her mother. She sang the songs her mother wanted her to sing; she sang the songs she chose; she wore dresses she chose. It’s a much more complicated story.
With all the hours of footage you had, you must have had to leave some things out. What do you wish you could have included that didn’t make the cut?
Lots of things. I had a nice section that analysed Whitney’s voice and asked why some people can communicate through the sound of their voice more than the words. There was discussion about the death, which was so mysterious [Houston was found drowned in a bath in 2012]. Mary Jones, her assistant, told me that she thought there might have been someone else in the room when Whitney died, because there was so much water on the floor, but the taps in the bath were off. The taps had been on for the bath to overflow, but who switched them off? I talked to everyone who was there in the lead-up – various dodgy individuals – and there was interesting stuff about that, but it felt like a very long 15 minutes at the end of the film. It felt like that wasn’t what the film was about.
At the end of the project, in what major ways had you changed your mind about who Whitney Houston was?
I feel enormous compassion for her now, because with understanding comes compassion. I feel for her and probably the whole family. They were ill-equipped, in many ways, to deal with her whole situation. I feel a much greater appreciation for the voice and the enormous social impact she had. She didn’t shout about it and because she was this very poppy figure people didn’t make such a big deal about it, but things like [being part of a mixed-race relationship on screen] in The Bodyguard, or being the first black singer to perform in post-apartheid South Africa or singing Star Spangled Banner. All these things are massive.
Whitney is in cinemas from Friday