Alan Light on How a Director Uncovered Whitney Houston’s Secret Pain

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.

Pat Houston, who is married to the singer’s half brother Gary Garland-Houston and is the executor of her estate, said that it was important for the family to speak openly about Whitney’s struggles, including her drug use and her relationship with longtime friend, assistant and rumored lover, Robyn Crawford. “Her family had to share her with the world and protect her image,” she said in a telephone interview. “Always having to walk on eggshells” when talking about her — “that’s not a way to live.”

Toward the end of “Whitney” comes a revelation that is presented as a possible key to the singer’s suffering: She and her half brother were molested as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, a moderately successful R&B singer and the sister of Dionne Warwick. During the course of production, Mr. Macdonald began to suspect that there might be abuse in Houston’s past.

“As I looked at footage of Whitney, she seemed uncomfortable in herself, physically uncomfortable,” he said. “It reminded me of people who had some childhood trauma.” He found a BBC radio interview from the 1980s in which she expressed her anger at child abusers. “It makes me crazy when people treat children badly,” she said.

The director spoke to addiction specialists, trying to understand why Houston and her brothers, Gary and Michael, all battled advanced drug problems. A year into the process, in his third interview with Gary, Mr. Macdonald broke through. “Gary said that the origin of his own addiction, and the reason he could not fully heal, was the recurring images of when he was abused as a child.”

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Source: New York Times