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‘Whitney’ Director Kevin Macdonald on Striking a Balance With a ‘Life Out of Balance’

"I approached Whitney's life like a mystery story; why did someone with so much raw talent and beauty self-destruct so publicly and painfully?"

“Whitney represents so much,” director Kevin Macdonald says, “and yet there’s a kind of mystery, an absence at the heart of this big celebrity tale. That mystery, I suppose, is what made me want to make the film.”

Macdonald’s documentary Whitney presents an unflinching portrait of Houston and her family that combines original interviews with the people who knew her best and never-before-seen archival footage, demo recordings, rare performances, and audio archives.

Macdonald explains, “I approached Whitney’s life like a mystery story; why did someone with so much raw talent and beauty self-destruct so publicly and painfully? I was lucky enough to have the support of Pat Houston [Whitney’s sister-in-law and an executive producer on the film] and the Whitney Houston estate in this quest. 

“They entrusted me with the ‘keys to the vault’ while giving me complete freedom to follow the story wherever it went. At heart, Whitney is an intimate family story that reveals a new side to a woman that even her most die-hard fans never knew.”

“I interviewed 75 people in the end, some of them three times,” Macdonald tells Olly Richards. “I put everything on camera… my editor described it as like an inquest. You had some people avoiding telling the truth, some were angry. The family started to open up after a while. Her two brothers started off not wanting to be involved and then by the end of it they both said it was like the therapy they never had.” To read the full article, click here.

Macdonald and director of photography Nelson Hume filmed their subjects against similar backdrops: “We made the stylistic decision to shoot everybody against a neutral background so that we wouldn’t be distracted by their lives beyond the hotel room where they’re talking right to the camera. We wanted each interview to feel immediate, just the subject and the viewer.”

Read more: How a Director Uncovered Whitney Houston’s Secret Pain 

“Macdonald fills the screen with rueful, emotive faces,” writes Michael Schulman, “of siblings, of friends, of passing acquaintances, of Bobby Brown. They come to resemble, by turns, a Greek chorus, enablers, and bystanders at a crime scene.” To read the full article, click here.

While Macdonald was conducting the interviews, archival producer Sam Dwyer and her team gained access to thousands of photographs, videos and recordings archived in Atlanta and New Jersey by producer Patricia Houston and the Whit-Nip production company.

“The estate owns so much stuff,” says Patricia Houston. “We’ve got things from every tour, every concert, every interview, so our archives are amazing. Whatever the filmmakers needed, our estate team made it happen.”

Archival elements featured in the film, many of which have never been seen publicly, include recording session outtakes, rare videos, and a telling audio recording of Whitney describing a nightmare.

“We’ve got lots of home movie footage, including this amazing scene of Whitney curling up next to [her mother] Cissy in a dressing room after one of her shows,” Macdonald says. “The footage is terrible quality but it’s so revealing about their relationship.”

“That’s an amazing scene and I think it’s one of the lucky, lucky finds,” Macdonald tells Melinda Newman. “A lot of the themes in the movie are present in that one two-minute sequence. You get to see the dynamic with her mother and how sincere Whitney is about her music and her talent and what she’s trying to do and how hard it is for her. I think a lot of people feel, “Oh, Whitney, it’s kind of bubble gum, escapist, it’s not serious music.” But when you see her there in that scene, you see how seriously she took it and how much of an effort it [was]. To read the full interview, click here.

The documentary also includes material from Whitney’s longtime hairstylist Ellin LaVar. “She had this whole bag full of little 8mm videotapes that we transferred,” explains producer Lisa Erspamer. “You have to remember Ellin and Whitney were just kids in their early 20s when all of this started. As they traveled the world, Ellin shot video of everything on her little camera.”

“There are clips capturing some of her best performances, from her debut TV appearance at 19 singing ‘Home’ from The Wiz to the 1980s power dynamics of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ and her arguable career peak belting out ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super Bowl,” writes Peter Travers. “She made history in The Bodyguard (1992), not just for its chart-topping songs, but for singing ‘I Will Always Love You’ to Kevin Costner—and persuading multiracial audiences to embrace it. 

“Still, what Whitney offers as a film is not a career retrospective, but a portrait of a life out of balance, the thing that happens when talent sparks an overweening fame that makes a normal day-to-day existence virtually impossible.” To read the full article, click here.

“Macdonald also makes artful use of jarring, subversive cuts to highlight the contradictions in Houston’s career,” Michael Schulman says. “The national-anthem sequence slides between Houston’s soaring performance and images of civil unrest and police brutality. (This was, after all, less than two months before the Rodney King beating.) 

“In an earlier segment, Houston’s bopping, pastel-hued video for ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ is intercut with clips of Ronald Reagan, Coke commercials, and other totems of sunny eighties America—until the footage veers into the 1967 race riots in Newark that shadowed Houston’s childhood. The subtext is that Houston’s crossover prom-queen image was a cover for more than just her personal demons—it was a fantasy of post-racial relatability.” To read the full article, click here.

“The funny thing is that when I started this film, I found it frustrating because I couldn’t get her voice,” Macdonald says. “I couldn’t find her. I wanted Whitney to be talking about race, talking about America, and I didn’t have any of that stuff. But slowly, I fell in love with her and now I understand that Whitney Houston is a major artist who did something very unfashionable, which is to use her voice to express the raw power of emotion through song.”

“Broadly speaking, the purpose of the movie has got to be to make you love the music and go back to the music,” Macdonald tells Melinda Newman. “I wanted the first half of the movie to be a very positive experience where you appreciate how talented she was. You get the real pinnacles of her career, The Bodyguard and the huge social significance of that movie and ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and then you also understand and get to learn about ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and how she had this huge social impact by really reinventing [at the 1991 Super Bowl] what ‘The National Anthem’ means to a lot of people at that moment.

“Then things start to take a turn for the worse. The film becomes a psychological investigation and a story about trying to understand her and watching the people who are around her—her friends and family—trying to understand her.” To read the full interview, click here.