A Life Full of Betrayal and Disappointment: How Director Kevin Macdonald Uncovered Whitney Houston’s Secret Pain

Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston in the documentary about her. (Credit: The Estate of Whitney E. Houston)
Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston in the documentary about her. (Credit: The Estate of Whitney E. Houston)

In one of the many troubling moments in the new documentary “Whitney,” a record label executive, Joey Arbagey, describes what it was like trying to make an album with Whitney Houston around the turn of the century. One of the biggest stars in the world, just a few years past her triumphant peak starring in “The Bodyguard” (the 1992 hit that spawned a 17-million-selling soundtrack), she was mired in drug addiction, emotionally battered, creatively adrift.

Mr. Arbagey recounts the many months wasted, the millions of dollars spent, just trying to get her into the studio for a usable session. “Deep down,” he says, “she was a girl in pain.”

This pain runs throughout “Whitney,” the first film to be authorized by the Houston estate (another documentary, “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” came out last year, without the participation of Houston’s family and with limited access to her recordings). Directed by Kevin Macdonald — whose credits include the Oscar-winning documentary “One Day in September” and the acclaimed drama “The Last King of Scotland” — the movie examines the phenomenon and tragedy of Houston, perhaps the greatest pure singer of her generation, whose tabloid-fodder decline reached its seemingly inevitable end with her 2012 death in a Los Angeles hotel bathroom at the age of 48.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Macdonald — who was brought into the project by Houston’s agent, Nicole David — said that he was certainly aware of Houston’s music when he was growing up but wasn’t particularly a fan. “It felt like an interesting challenge,” he said, “making a serious film about somebody who was not taken seriously.”

He discovered a life full of betrayal and disappointment, from both of her parents having affairs during her youth to being booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards when the Rev. Al Sharpton accused her of ignoring her black fan base. It’s a story in striking contrast to the carefully manicured image of her early days — “the prom queen of soul,” as a newscaster chirps in one clip.

The documentary, which was released this month, has received largely positive reviews, with some critics especially impressed by the unsparing portrayal given that the film was sanctioned by Houston’s estate.

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SOURCE: Alan Light 
The New York Times