Audiences are filing out of the world premiere screening of Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney at the Cannes Film Festival tonight, a new documentary that sheds fresh light on iconic singer Whitney Houston’s tragic and puzzling rise-and-fall story. Interviewing Houston’s closest family and friends, Macdonald made two illuminating new discoveries that appear in the film: one, that the singer had been abused as a child, and, two, that the abuser was a woman, Houston’s cousin Dee-Dee Warwick, the late sister of soul icon Dionne. Dee-Dee Warwick died in 2008.
It has been six years now since Houston’s death put the final full stop on a long and turbulent life that had seen her make newspaper headlines for a quarter of a century, first for the gift of a soulful voice that made her a singing star around the world, and later as a drug-ravaged shadow of her former self.
From the 1940s heyday of jazz legend Billie Holliday, whose battle with heroin similarly sabotaged a once promising career, through Janis Joplin and up to the tragic death of Britain’s Amy Winehouse in 2011, the clichéd narrative of the self-destructive female has been a familiar trope in popular culture. Macdonald’s documentary, which Miramax and Roadside Attractions release in the U.S. on July 6, seeks to upset that sexist interpretation in more ways than one.
Macdonald spoke to Deadline at our Cannes Studio to discuss the film’s startling revelations and the ethics of handling such sensitive material.
When did it occur to you to make a film about Whitney Houston?
It didn’t occur to me—somebody came to me. Simon Chinn, who produced Man On Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, came to me and said, “I want to make a film about Whitney Houston.” And I said initially, “I’m not really interested in Whitney Houston.” Or rather, “I’m not sure there’s anything interesting to say about Whitney Houston.” But then I met with Nicole David, who’s kind of co-producer on the film, who was Whitney’s longtime film agent at William Morris. And she was the person who really intrigued me, and made me think, “Oh, maybe there is a really interesting film here.” Which is kind of a mystery story, I suppose, because what Nicole said to me was, “I knew her probably as well as anybody for 25 years. I was her agent, I helped her in her down times, I was there celebrating the great times, but I never really understood her, and I never understood why what happened to her happened to her—why she ended up dying this tragic death.” And that intrigued me; I thought, “Hey, how could somebody who, on the surface, you would think knew her so well still think there was a mystery there?” So that was kind of the origins of the movie for me.
You go into it with a very investigative attitude. It’s almost like a detective story, in a way.
Yes, that’s exactly what it is for me. For me, it is a kind of a detective story, and so I deliberately left my questions in, to give you the sense that I’m looking for something, trying to understand, and maybe a little bit puzzled by some of it. Because it’s quite an extraordinary bunch of characters that you meet along the way—her family and her friends, her musicians. You feel like you’re stepping into quite a dysfunctional and odd and sometimes surreal world.
Was everybody open to being interviewed about the subject?
I wouldn’t say everyone was open, no. I’ve never interviewed as many people for a film as I have on this. I think I interviewed about 70 people, and I would say a good 30 or so of them didn’t make it into the cut. Which is a lot higher percentage than you would normally think, but a lot of people just gave me the flannel. They just gave me the same old sort of, “Oh she was wonderful, she was troubled, she was the voice of the generation,” kind of stuff. Which surprised me, because, you know, she died six years ago. And I feel like, now is the time. There’s enough distance for you to be honest, and to look at yourself, as well as at her. And I think that is the key to why people find it hard to talk about her honestly—so many people around her feel guilty, and they’re not prepared yet, in their own lives, to kind of acknowledge that or admit that. That’s the feeling that comes off from them; there’s a lot of guilt.
Click here to read more.