Nicole David is why Kevin Macdonald made “Whitney.” As an agent at William Morris, David represented Whitney Houston for almost 30 years, even before her first album came out in 1985 at age 22. She stood by her through 200 million album sales worldwide, movie stardom, husband Bobby Brown, and struggles with drugs, right up to her death at age 48 in 2012 from a lethal combination of drugs and alcohol. Even so, for David Houston remained a mystery.
“I always had a feeling there was something more, a reason why,” David said. “No matter what I tried and other people tried, nothing seemed to work. I just couldn’t understand it for years; it made me so angry at everybody. Why didn’t this girl want to get better? It wasn’t as simple as she liked being stoned. That’s never the issue.”
In 2012, veteran “Oprah” producer Lisa Erspamer approached David about doing a documentary on the singer. David remembered how well Erspamer took care of Houston when she came on Winfrey’s show, “whether it was a good year or a bad year,” she said. In 2013, after she left the agency world, David introduced Erspamer to the singer’s sister-in-law Pat Houston, who is married to Whitney’s half-brother Gary and is executor of the Houston estate.
It took a while to get the movie going. Eventually, David told Erspamer and producers Simon and Jonathan Chinn that she thought Oscar-winning documentarian Kevin Macdonald (“One Day in September,” “Marley”) could find the human being behind the tabloid headlines. “I thought it was important that somebody told the story of Whitney,” she said, “so that forever she wouldn’t be this beautiful girl that God chose to have the most beautiful voice and be the biggest star in the world, who then just purposely threw away all the gifts she got, for no reason except to have a good time.”
By that point, the Chinns had already obtained a final cut deal from Pat Houston and music-rights controller Clive Davis. But when they first approached Macdonald, he wasn’t enthusiastic. However, he agreed to meet with David; she snagged his curiosity as Elvis Presley’s co-star in 1969’s “The Trouble With Girls” and as the original voice of Velma on “Scooby-Doo.”
“There was such sincerity in her when she talked about Whitney,” he said. “She was emotional. That psychological mystery of somebody nobody around her understood was intriguing to me. I was tempted to try to make a serious film about a subject that is considered so tabloidy and frivolous.”
“Whitney” digs deeply into her family. Her mother, New Jersey gospel and backup singer Cissy Houston, was often away performing; her divorce from Whitney’s father John was a source of anxiety for the rest of Whitney’s life. Her two brothers shared their drugs as she pursued her own career on the road. “It also told the story of how things get passed from one generation to the other, and a period of time in America,” said David.
Launching an Investigation
Macdonald quickly discovered that he faced a huge formal challenge because he was not working with the expressive song-and-video riches that Amy Winehouse left behind for Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Amy.” His subject was an enigma whose pop songs didn’t reveal her inner life at all. “Whitney, as she was, seemed absent from her interviews,” said Macdonald. “And she didn’t give many interviews.”
So Macdonald grilled everyone around her. “David was the fairy godmother who helped us get a lot of people to talk,” he said. “She was persuasive, driven personally by wanting the best film for Whitney and wanting the truth to come out. She was the great motivator. Agents aren’t known for their compassion, but she stuck with Whitney in the darkest time when everyone abandoned her, trying to help her, for no money.”
In 1985, when David met Houston, she didn’t handle musicians. “I was a tad snobby,” she said. She represented the likes of Emma Thompson, William Hurt, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Linda Hunt. “I knew from the first time I met Whitney she was vulnerable, but superficially tough. She had the most amazing star quality you could find in somebody. She knew how to walk into a tiny room and make the air change. I didn’t know she was a great singer. I fell in love with her after one minute, looked at her and her eyes, and figured she could be a movie star too.”
The filmmaker probed talking heads like witnesses in a trial. “I was lied to sometimes,” he said. “I was fighting Bobby Brown to get him to say something sensible. There’s a sense of me as an investigator who is not knowing where this is going.” Cissy proved elusive, until he spoke to her in the gospel church where she once ran the choir. “Her mind came into focus and she started to talk very well about teaching Whitney how to sing, what she gave her as an artist, how driven and how demanding and ferocious she was as a mother not to be messed with. She was an older woman in real pain who lost her daughter and granddaughter.” (Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina died under similar circumstances in 2015.)
Finally, Macdonald concluded that Whitney was not unlike Michael Jackson, who was driven by his parents to succeed at an early age before he had a chance to become himself. “She didn’t know who she was, so how can we know who she was? That comes from the abuse she suffered as a child, which stunted her emotional development,” he said. “I understand that she’s unknowable. I’m not sure if you could ever know her. I was making a film about somebody who did have a unique gift to communicate emotion.”
Houston, Jackson, and Prince all ended their lives eccentrics lost in isolation and drugs. “The intriguing thing is why the three biggest and brightest African-American stars of the ’80s, Prince, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, all ended up dying of drug-related issues, isolated from the world in similar circumstances, all deeply eccentric by then. Why is that? There’s a bigger sociological thing going on.”
The Big Reveal
Macdonald said he reached a low point about halfway through, when he was lost in the world of Oprah Winfrey and daytime TV shows with their tabloid chatter about addiction. “Why am I wasting my time on this stuff that is so soul destroying?” he asked himself. But he did need to go through all of it, “in order to dismiss most of it, and to find the odd little bit that was revealing.”
It took thousands of hours in the archive to find the clue that led Macdonald to the whole unraveling of the story of Houston’s abuse. In an ’80s BBC radio interview, English radio DJ Simon Bates asked Houston, “What makes you angry?”
“Child abuse makes me angry,” she said.
“I thought you come from a happy family,” he said.
“It makes me crazy when people treat children badly,” she said.
“It was weird that’s the thing she goes to,” said Macdonald. “It was one of the few relaxed, good interviews with her. That was the clue that led me on to pursuing that investigation.”
So Macdonald started asking the brothers, “‘Do you know of any abuse in her background?’ The brothers said, ‘We were left alone on our own a lot,’ as their mother was away a great deal; they were pushed from pillar to post and stayed with people.”
He asked Gary what was the root cause for his own addiction. “He said, ‘When I was abused by a female relative, sexually molested when I was like nine years old.’ I was obviously shocked by that. ‘The same thing happen to Whitney.’ Pat said that explained why Whitney insisted on taking her daughter Bobbi Kristina on tour. Mary Jones, Whitney’s assistant, said that Whitney talked about it a lot.”
Two weeks before debuting “Whitney” at Cannes, David learned what Macdonald knew as he neared the final edit. Gary Houston confirmed that he and Whitney were molested by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, an openly gay soul singer who sang with Cissy and battled her own drug problems before dying in a mental hospital at age 66 in 2008. “I realized what I had felt was true, was really true,” said David. “The part about the molestation did help to explain a lot.”
This information meant the editors had to restructure the movie at the last minute, and debated how to reveal the new information. Macdonald saved it for the end. “I don’t know where else you would put that,” he said. “The film did become this investigation. It’s where you and the audience have all had to go through this inquiry and wonder about her and reach this conclusion.”
While Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick had to be warned about the contents of the film and have not revealed their reactions, the other Houstons are grateful for Macdonald’s excavations. Macdonald said that for Gary, the repeated interviews were like therapy. “I was worried about what the family would think of the film,” said Macdonald. “[Gary] was grateful it happened, he said it was one of the best things to happen to him in years. ‘Why did I not talk about it before?'”
David brought Pat, the singer’s manager toward the end of her life, and her daughter Rayah to the Cannes premiere in May, and had to comfort them afterward. “Pat had already seen it,” said Macdonald. “Whitney’s niece was upset by it because her father Gary is so desperately sad in the film, so depressed that he lost his basketball career. He was the one who went out to buy drugs for Whitney; it was probably devastating for her.”
Opening the vaults was the best way to brush away the scandal — and improve the value of the Houston library. “They were sensible enough to realize that was the way to help her,” said Macdonald, “rather than a puff piece. There were a lot of family secrets, Gary said, and if you don’t talk about them they don’t go away. All this stuff was festering and lied about and kept hidden. Bringing it out into the open was restorative to them and her reputation.”
Roadside Attractions will release the film July 6 (Metascore: 68); whether fairly or unfairly, it is being compared to “Amy,” which could hurt it in the documentary Oscar race, which is crowded with biodocs, from Ruth Bader Ginsberg portrait “RBG” to the sob-fest “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Only so many will get through.