Kevin Macdonald on his Whitney Houston documentary

Kevin Macdonald's latest film is a heartfelt documentary about the troubled life of iconic singer Whitney Houston. The Scottish director explains his compassionate but honest approach to telling the singer's story

Feature by Iana Murray | 26 Jun 2018
  • Whitney

“There’s this friend of mine who’s a school teacher,” Whitney director Kevin Macdonald recalls. “In the staff common room, whenever the younger members of staff who are in their early 20s put music on, they would put on Whitney Houston. That made me think: maybe people still do listen to her.” The 50-year-old Glaswegian filmmaker seems almost surprised that – despite the controversy that permeated the end of her life – Whitney Houston’s music is timeless.

From the way Kevin Macdonald talks about making the documentary Whitney – the singer is so legendary no surname is needed – the film sounds like no easy task. It unfolds like an investigation, peeling back the layers to uncover how a life that appeared as glamorous as hers could end so tragically. “I didn’t start thinking it was going to be like that,” he says. “That’s what it became. There was a sense of being foiled by people not wanting to tell you the truth. It makes you feel more determined to find out what happened to her.”

Prior to beginning our interview in a bustling hotel bar, Macdonald laments being asked the same questions over and over again. He’s relaxed but fidgety (he drops a spoon multiple times) and clearly has his answers loaded. It’s all part of the job. Macdonald is a prolific director with over 20 years of work under his belt. He began making documentaries (including the Oscar-winning One Day in September), eventually switching to features like The Last King of Scotland. He is not new to music documentaries either. With films about Mick Jagger and Bob Marley, Macdonald has proven himself a certified pro in examining elusive icons.

His years of experience in fact and fiction has informed Whitney greatly. “When I started off making documentaries 20 years ago, I was really into this idea of making cinematic documentaries that almost felt like feature films, with a three-act structure and big music tracks and sound effects – then I went away and started doing drama. And now that I’ve come back to documentaries, I didn’t want to do that level of manipulation with the material. I wanted to let the material speak for itself, and have the bagginess of reality, rather than feeling like it needs to be serving this artificial narrative structure.” When you strip it down, however, Whitney is a traditional story of a rise and fall. “It’s the simplest story ever,” he says. “It’s a three-page story with 20 pages of footnotes.”

Intercutting between home footage, TV appearances and interviews with family, friends, and employees, the film pieces together the singer's life to discover what led to the drug abuse that eventually killed her. What is particularly intriguing about these interviews with the Houston family is that – even six years after her death – they are still reluctant to talk about her, or even be completely honest.

“First of all, you’re never going to get the truth out of anyone because what is the complete truth?” says Macdonald. “I definitely had the feeling that so many people were unwilling to go there because they felt that they were protecting her, which was sort of ridiculous, because what are you protecting? But secondly, more importantly, they are protecting themselves because they feel guilty. They feel like they somehow could’ve done more. I think a lot of people felt guilty – very few people were honest enough to say that. And actually, I think I’ve never known a bunch of interviewees more in denial.”

One key person Macdonald attempted to interview was Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston, but the formal interview setting paired with her forgetfulness made the footage unusable. It wasn’t until he took her to New Hope Baptist Church – the church where her daughter would perform in as a child – that she began to open up to him. “Suddenly, she came alive and seemed much younger and more engaged,” he says. “It was as though being in that environment that was so familiar and meant so much to her made her remember.”

The film not only examines what events in her childhood and career affected her but also suggests that Houston was a product of her environment. Montages of Houston’s performances make references to the Newark Riots and the Gulf War. Macdonald realised that racism was integral to shaping who the singer was, and montages afforded him the chance to acknowledge that without dwelling on it. “The best version of the film would be The Life and Times of Whitney Houston and it would be four hours long on Netflix,” says Macdonald. “But at the same time, you have to balance telling a good story with trying to be educational. Those two things are often in conflict. You have to try to keep it entertaining in the broadest sense, and educate people on the complexities of the story.”

He was interested in examining how Houston succeeded as a black artist in the white-dominated music industry. “She’s an integral part of 80s culture, but she’s also a part of this consumerist culture that says ‘She’s as American as a McDonald’s or a skateboard or Wrigley’s spearmint gum.’ All of those things are white – and she’s a part of that.”

Unlike Nick Broomfield’s 2017 film Whitney: Can I Be Me, Whitney is the only documentary about Houston that has been authorised by her family’s estate – but there is something that Macdonald wants to clarify. “People think that anything that is authorised means that they have control. [Whitney Houston’s family] didn’t have any control over the editorial content of the film, and I wouldn’t have made it if they had. There was no point in making a puff piece.”

Was he ever worried about how they would respond? “Very,” he promptly answers. He mentions that Cissy Houston and cousin Dionne Warwick only saw the film a few weeks ago. “They weren’t best pleased but they haven’t tried to stop me,” he says.

The film uncovers many secrets that few people – especially one of the most famous families in show business – would want out in the open. There’s the affair Whitney’s mother had with the preacher of her church, which Macdonald suggests tormented her psychologically by destroying the two things she relied on most: family and the church. There’s also the drug addiction that not only afflicted Houston, but her brothers as well, and cost half-brother Gary a place in the NBA.

The most notable discovery is that Houston was sexually abused as a child by cousin Dee Dee Warwick. Knowing this information prior, the film feels like it is leading up to this reveal, which comes later in the runtime. “That is sort of the reality of how it was made,” admits Macdonald. “That did come to me very late in the last few weeks of the edit. It made me revise a lot of opinions on what happened earlier and why Whitney behaved in certain ways.”

Even though he didn’t know Houston personally, Macdonald speaks about the woman with great affection and admiration. By immersing himself in her life, he understands how fame validated her difficult childhood. There’s a certain poeticism to the film, in that it begins and ends with the one place she felt at home: her church. “I think Whitney just wanted to belong, and so this whole idea of home is so important to her,” he says. “The people who bullied her when she was young because she was different or too white, they’re queueing in the streets, they’re in the church, applauding her. She belongs.”

Whitney had its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released 6 Jul by Altitude

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