(Updated July 11: Cissy Houston and Dionne Warwick have released a statement to People magazine detailing their “horror” about the claims made in the film by Whitney Houston’s longtime personal assistant Mary Jones and Houston’s brother Gary about the sexual abuse he and Whitney allegedly suffered under the watch of Dee Dee Warwick, Dionne’s sister. Read the full statement here.)
The first voice you hear in the opening moments of “Whitney,” the searing documentary about the late supernova, is the singer herself.
“I would look up to God (and ask), ‘Why is this happening to me?’” she says, a haunting recollection given how her life would unfold until her untimely death in 2012.
The two-hour film, which opens July 6, is the first biopic fully sanctioned by Houston’s family.
Brothers Gary and Michael, mother Cissy, sister-in-law Pat (also an executive producer of the film), ex-husband Bobby Brown and a cast of close friends and professional contacts all contribute candid commentary under the skillful interviewing of Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald.
While there is an unshakable sadness that permeates “Whitney” — which culminates with Houston’s drowning in a bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards — Macdonald strives to remind us of the reasons why Houston became one of the best-selling female artists in music history, with more than 200 million albums sold worldwide.
From the footage of her first TV appearance in 1983 on “The Merv Griffin Show,” when she confidently belts “Home” from “The Wiz,” to the behind-the-scenes tidbits about how she slayed her 1991 Super Bowl rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (shifting it from 3/4 to 4/4 time proved ingenious), we are often able to bask in her vocal splendor.
But Houston’s demons are hardly suppressed.
Her legendary drug use — hidden well for years in a pre-social-media world — was instigated not by Brown, who is often cast as the villain in her life, but her brothers.
Brown, however, turns defensive when Macdonald inquires about Houston’s addiction.
“Drugs had nothing to do with her life,” he says flatly.
Equally eye-rolling is the assertion from record mogul L.A. Reid that, “I never knew there was any addiction.”
But as the rest of the world knows, there was, and it followed Houston to Alpharetta, where she and Brown lived in dramatic fashion in the early 2000s with daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who, eerily, died in 2015 after being found face-down in a bathtub in her Atlanta-area townhouse.
Pat Houston, who married Gary Garland-Houston in 1994, was an integral part of Whitney’s life for 26 years, both in New Jersey and Alpharetta.
On Monday, a screening of the documentary in the Atlanta suburb drew a large crowd of people who knew Houston from her Georgia years, including those with whom she attended St. James United Methodist Church on Peachtree Dunwoody Road.
Talking the next afternoon from North Carolina, where another screening of the documentary would take place, Pat Houston delved into some of the key parts of “Whitney,” including the revelation by Gary that he and his sister were molested as children by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick.
Q: How are you doing? I imagine it’s emotionally exhausting to keep reliving all of this.
A: I always tell people that everything has paled in comparison to Whitney not being here. It gets to be lonely sometimes and I know she’s at peace and doesn’t have to deal with this anymore because she had such struggles in her life. I feel good and am comfortable in expressing how I feel about her and life. She always wanted the very best for me and for me to be happy. But I’m good. The healing is good.
Q: How long has this documentary been in the works?
A: Two years. It’s been a process. Kevin is one of those premiere filmmakers. We gave him the keys to the vault and he took his time and he looked in the vault and this is what we came up with.
Q: You and Whitney’s brothers and many other friends and family members have some very candid comments. How hard was it for Cissy to sit through interviews for the film?
A: Losing a daughter at 48 and then your granddaughter at 22…she had to share her only daughter with the world for a very long time. It’s been a trial and a test for the entire family to have to deal with it. Cissy spoke where she was needed. She spoke about how she worked with her daughter and was involved at the very beginning. Clive (Davis) packaged her, but Cissy created her.
Q: Did Gary feel a sense of catharsis talking publicly for the first time about the abuse he and Whitney endured with Dee Dee Warwick?
A: Whenever you’re in the spotlight all of your life, there’s nothing you can do that no one knows about because of your last name. She’s not here, so what is there to hide? (Warwick died in 2008.) There’s a sense of, I don’t have to deal with anything anymore. I can express how I feel. I don’t have to hold on to these emotions. I felt good for him to be able to release that.
Q: The Atlanta years are portrayed as a particularly dark time in Whitney’s history. (Houston’s longtime assistant) Mary (Jones) even refers to their home as an “evil dwelling.” Do you agree with that?
A: Everything that happened to (Whitney) happened before Atlanta. If you really look at the film, from the time she was looking so skinny, she lived in New Jersey. You can’t hide from yourself. Everywhere you go, there you are. So she brought that from New Jersey. I listened to how people say she left all the people who loved her (when she moved to Atlanta). No, none of those people got her into a rehab or talked about rehab. She didn’t get to rehab until she got to Georgia, and I was very much involved in that. I saw someone who was in trouble. When I went on the road in 1998-99, that was when I discovered they all had an issue and I couldn’t understand why nothing was being done. She had such a gift and such a talent, but … by the time she got to Atlanta, she crashed.
Q: Why do you think Whitney liked living here?
A: She found a sense of purpose and freedom by doing things on her own. She didn’t have six or seven people in her house all the time. It was much freer for her to really be herself, with people not harassing her. It was different for her here. She didn’t feel like she was being smothered.
Q: Mary’s recollection of finding Whitney in the bathtub on the day she died seems a little different than what we’ve heard in the past. Is there an insinuation there or did I misunderstand what she was saying?
A: I think you might have. No one knows what happened in that room but Whitney and God. It was heartbreaking. Mary Jones was very dedicated. There are a few of us who never abandoned Whitney and Mary stood by her when she didn’t have a dime until she got herself together.
Q: That’s what is especially tragic – that it seems as if Whitney really was ready to re-emerge.
A: She really was trying to turn things around. Whitney was working with (producers) Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on a remake of Judy Garland’s (1963 movie) “If I could Go on Singing” - that was one of the meetings we were taking while we were there (in Los Angeles, when Houston died). There were many projects that were coming. That “Flight” movie with Denzel Washington, she passed on it. The movie with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep and Philip Seynour Hoffman (“Doubt”), she would have played the Viola role but passed on it. She really wanted to act more. She was very much in her groove, really trying to come back. (Laughs) And she hated that word!
But you know, we have to be very careful of the choices we make in life. The family has often been victimized for her failure to respect life and it just saddens me. I try not to say this should be a cautionary tale, but a lot of young people should see this film. There are so many shows out there now – “American Idol,” “The Four” - and all of these kids want to become entertainers. But you have to be ready for that and be cautious of the people around you and the distractions around you.
Q: Now that we have this official recounting of Whitney’s life and death, what do you hope people will be left with?
A: They can see the star that she really was. She had a human story. A story full of triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, love and disappointment. Her life mirrors all of ours — she just played hers out in public. Her legacy and her life is to be celebrated. She reached a plateau that most folks would never reach in their lifetime. Her dreams and aspirations and hard work got her there. It’s just unfortunate that they didn’t protect that gem. It’s now time to put it all to rest and love her for her music, what you were drawn to in the first place. And give her the props that she deserved. She is Whitney Houston, (one of the) biggest-selling female artists in the history of music.
Starring Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston and Bobby Brown. Directed by Kevin Macdonald.
Rated R for language and drug content. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours.
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