Charting the rise and fall of Whitney Houston
After previously covering the life of Bob Marley and making a film about the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics, Dartmouth Park director Kevin Macdonald has turned his attention to the tragic but ‘unique’ singer
05 July, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Whitney Houston, who sold more than 200 million albums, died in a Beverly Hills hotel room aged just 48 in 2012
WHITNEY Houston smashed records for sales – and fell from grace as her well-documented addictions became a source of fascination for a media hungry for celebrity stories and fans who feared for the health of a woman who brought so many such joy.
Now the Oscar-winning film director Kevin Macdonald has turned his lens in the direction of Whitney’s life.
The figures behind her success are astonishing: she sold more than 200 million albums and is the only artist in history to have charted seven straight consecutive US number ones.
Using archive footage and interviews with friends, family and colleagues – including her brothers, her mother and her ex-husband, the singer Bobby Brown – the documentary not only reminds us of her talent but traces her life, its triumphs and disasters, through to its tragic end with her death in a Beverly Hills hotel room aged just 48 in 2012.
Kevin, who lives in Dartmouth Park, has previously covered the life of Bob Marley, made a film about the 1972 terror attack at the Munich Olympics, and directed The Last King of Scotland, a feature film about Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and his Scottish physician.
Kevin Macdonald, right, at work
But when he was first approached to tell Whitney’s story, he didn’t want to do it: “I wasn’t a fan,” he admits.
But then Kevin was drawn to the story not because of her place in contemporary pop music or her tragic early death, but from an article he read in the New Yorker by journalist Cinque Henderson. The film shows her performance of the Star Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl – a significant moment in making her a truly American star, and one that Henderson chewed over.
“He wrote about why her performance was such an epochal performance, why the national anthem was so important in understanding race relations and why it was incredibly original at the time,” says Kevin. “The article stated that she changed the way the anthem was sung.
“She made a song that African Americans did not want to sing because of its overtones of state power, of militarism, of what it represented – she made it about freedom and pride. We do not think of her having a political or social impact – for me, that was an amazing thing to learn but hard to talk about in the film.”
Whitney is the only artist in history to have charted seven straight consecutive US number ones
And as he began laying out Whitney’s story he discovered a fresh respect for her talent. “She had a voice that carried something unique,” he says.
“It had a real emotional punch. Her music was incredibly over-produced but if you strip that away, it becomes something else entirely. She has one of the greatest female voices and she could have been a jazz or gospel singer, not a pop singer. She has the power for that and she loved the freedom offered by those styles of music.”
The film charts her early life, singing in the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, and her mother Cissy’s success as a backing singer supporting the likes of Aretha Franklin. Whitney’s marriage to singer Bobby Brown is also scrutinised.
“Bobby was in denial when I interviewed him,” says Kevin. “He had always had this tough guy image but actually he is a very insecure and rather pathetic character. He puts on this front like the tough kid at school but he was rather sad. The fact was he did not want to talk about the drug abuse or about Whitney in an honest way shows what he is like – he did not appear to have the maturity or emotional strength to do so.”
Whitney with Bobby Brown
Yet Brown’s reputation as the man who led the sweet singer astray is incorrect, adds Kevin. “Bobby did not take drugs before he met Whitney.
“I feel he was unfairly vilified. She was seen as such an American sweetheart, the girl you’d take home to meet your parents, and he emerged and came across as a bit of a bad boy, but she was the naughty one who did things to the extreme.”
That has affected how Brown talks to the press.
“People do not believe him because of the image of her being a squeaky-clean all-American.”
Perhaps one of the most moving moments is Kevin’s gentle handling of Whitney’s heartbroken mother. Cissy was the driving force behind shaping her daughter’s raw talent, and she is interviewed sitting in a pew at the church where they sung each Sunday.
Whitney with her brother
“Cissy is very wounded,” he says. “She has lost her daughter and granddaughter [Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died in 2015] and she probably feels it is her fault. You get a sense that she is such a tough woman and that toughness showed itself through her determination that Whitney would have a career she did not have. Whitney was quite a soft character, her mother was as tough as old boots and incredibly driven.”
Her older brothers, Michael and Gary, speak about issues within the family, their own demons and also what it was like to be part of her entourage at the height of her success.
“What I hope people take from the film is that we are telling a complicated family story about someone who is analysed as a tabloid star,” Kevin said.
“When I started this film, I found it frustrating as I couldn’t get her voice. I couldn’t find her. I wanted Whitney talking about race, talking about America and I didn’t have any of that.
“But slowly I fell in love with her and now I understand that Whitney Houston is a major artist who did something very unfashionable – which is to use her voice to express the raw power of emotion through song.”