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Whitney Houston may have passed away six years ago, but the circumstances surrounding the iconic singer’s death — and even much of her life — are still largely shrouded in mystery. With Whitney, the only film to have the support of Houston’s estate, Oscar winner Kevin Macdonald helps reveal a woman blessed and cursed with arguably one of the greatest voices in contemporary music, speaking with her family and — even — Bobby Brown. Whitney claims the same Cannes midnight screening slot that Amy Winehouse documentary Amy used in 2015 as a springboard for box-office and Academy glory (though Macdonald worries this could be a “jinx”). Speaking with THR, the Scottish director reveals his fascination and frustration with Houston’s superficial public image, why he hasn’t watched Nick Broomfield’s 2017 doc Can I Be Me on the singer, and how his interviews with her brothers turned into therapy sessions.
What made you decide to make this film about Whitney Houston?
When I was first approached about it, my immediate response was that I’m not really interested in Whitney Houston. But then I did two things. I met Nicole David, her longtime agent, who was incredibly close to her. And she said to me, “I just don’t understand what happened, she was the most lovely girl,” and this was someone who knew her really well. And I thought that was interesting. And then Nicole sent me this article about Whitney’s rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” and how that changed how the song has been understood and sung ever since. So I think it was the combination of thinking there’s this really interesting personal mystery, but also how this woman was a musical genius. She’s someone who has had such a big impact on culture but is not taken seriously.
How was it dealing with Whitney’s estate? Did they have final cut?
I’ve done a few celebrity-related things, and I think on the first one — about Mick Jagger — I got stung and was not able to make the film I wanted to make. I’ve made two others since then, one about Bob Marley and this. I wouldn’t have entered into either of them unless I had final cut. But we’ve actually had a very unacrimonious and pleasant collaboration, and they’ve been supportive of the film, even though there are quite a few sensitive issues brought up.
How did they deal with those sensitive issues?
I interviewed her brothers, who are key parts of her life, and they said to me that it had become a sort of therapy session, to try to understand her in a way. Because she’s just a mystery. I got frustrated but also fascinated — she never really gave anything of herself away. Almost 95 percent of her interviews are completely superficial and uninteresting. And in public appearances, she’s giving off this vibe that she doesn’t want to be there. So you start to ask, why is that?
You managed to speak to Bobby Brown. How was he to deal with?
The story of Whitney’s life is so chewed-over and tabloidized, and people who were in her inner circle for 20, 30 years got so used to lying, basically. There’s this interesting bit where the publicist talks about how guilty she feels because she lied for all these years about so many important things. But I think Bobby actually is not ready to tell the truth, for whatever reason.
But you didn’t talk to her best friend Robyn Crawford. Did you try to reach out to her?
I had some communication with her and she ummed and ahhed for about eight months but decided not to do it. That’s the big regret, but I would say when I went into it, she was more important than how I felt on the way out.
Were there any major revelations that you weren’t anticipating?
Yes, and they’re mostly to do with the family. Her background. For everybody in the world, the answers to the mysteries in your life usually lie in your childhood, your upbringing and your parents. And that’s certainly what I felt with her.
At what point did you find out Nick Broomfield was making his own Whitney doc, Can I Be Me?
Even when we were first having conversations, I was told he was at least interested in making something. My feeling was that it would be a very different kind of film and that mine would be out significantly later than his. I haven’t seen his film, I’ve deliberately not watched it, but I genuinely respect Nick.
It didn’t impact your approach to making Whitney?
Not really. It’s a very intimate film and also a film about her musical genius. And those are two things I knew he couldn’t do, because he didn’t have access to the music — except one concert — and didn’t have access to the family.
Of everyone you’ve made films about — including Marley and Idi Amin — where does Houston rank in terms of intrigue?
I’m always amazed by how people will talk for hours and hours about her. It’s because there’s something deeply troubling and mysterious about her. It’s a quality that’s slightly different to other celebrities I’ve worked with — the level of fascinating debate and dissection is far, far higher with her. It’s because there is this strange absence of her. But then there’s this voice that communicates emotions so directly, like a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter’s May 12 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival.
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