When Kevin Macdonald was first offered a chance to direct a documentary about superstar Whitney Houston, he said no.
The acclaimed Oscar-winning director (“One Day in September,” “Marley”) wasn’t much of a fan, he admits. Back in the 1980s, when Houston skyrocketed to fame, he was more into Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Houston had seemed, in his view, “terminally uncool.”
Then he met her agent, Nicole David, who said Houston had been her favorite client, but she’d never been able to figure the woman out.
“That appealed to me — that mystery — that not even the people closest to her really understood her,” he says.
“Whitney,” Macdonald’s revealing, at times gut-wrenching, documentary premieres July 6. For fans, it hits all the high notes — with footage of key performances, from her singing in church as a child, to her TV debut on Merv Griffin’s show in 1983, to her incomparable rendition of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, during the Persian Gulf War.
The darker side (drugs, family strife, her death in 2012) is there, too, with commentary from her mother, Cissy Houston, Arista Records president Clive Davis, and a slew of relatives, friends, bodyguards and stylists. Plus a tight-lipped Bobby Brown, Houston’s ex.
“It was sometimes like pulling teeth, getting them to talk,” Macdonald says. “They’ve all been trained to lie to the press.”
Those lies — about Houston's drug use and what we’d now call her sexual fluidity — get unearthed, along with a long-held family secret of childhood trauma she suffered.
He was surprised by this news … and not.
“After spending months in Whitney’s ‘company,’ watching footage of her, I began to feel there was something odd about her, something I’d seen in other people who’ve suffered trauma,” Macdonald recalls. Her “closedness” in interviews, a coolness and lack of sexuality, her seeming discomfort with her own body added up, they seemed like signs of inner pain. “Why is she so uncomfortable in her own skin?” he’d wondered.
The truth is tragic, but her ability to channel that pain, passion and yearning for love into performance remains miraculous and magical.
As for Macdonald’s take on her now? Oh, he’s a fan.
“What’s amazing is not so much the music but the emotional communication and power of that voice,” he says. “There’s something about that voice that gets to you, emotionally, directly, more than any other artist I can think of.”