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Whitney: a conversation with Kevin McDonald

Film still of Whitney

Film still of Whitney © RR

After Being Mick (2001), about Rolling Stones' lead singer Mick Jagger and Marley (2012), about the iconic reggae singer Bob Marley, British filmmaker Kevin McDonald recounts the life of singer Whitney Houston, who died in 2012. Composed of cuts from live performances and previously unpublished photos, Whitney reveals the extent to which music was an escape from her torments.

What was your aim when you started to work on this project and were you free to tell the story you wanted?

I was not a huge fan of Whitney’s music before making the film. But I was amazed at the emotional force of her voice. She seems to communicate more non-verbally, I mean through the sound of her voice, rather than through the lyrics themselves. The second thing that made me want to make the film was the mystery around her, the fact that she never seemed to reveal her true self in interviews and even her closest friends and family disagree about why her life followed the tragic path that it did. There are secrets and lies, and that makes for a fascinating detective story for the filmmaker. I had final cut of the film and would not have made it without that contractual security. I admire the family for being open-minded enough to allow me to make the film I wanted.


Your documentary includes unreleased recordings, previously unpublished home movie footage and live performances. How did you want the tone of the documentary to be at the very beginning?

The film was always a voyage of discovery. I just had a feeling that there was more to her story than meets the eye, something about her and the way she appears so uncomfortable in her own skin. It was a detective story. What I did know at the outset was that I wanted to make a serious film about a subject that people don’t usually take seriously and to include social context and history.


What do you think her way of working and creating reveals about who she was?

I think that Whitney found making music very easy, almost too easy. I think that in some ways she was only really her "true self" when she was singing. It was her outlet, her form of communication.


Your work also shows on a more private side that she was a woman both blessed and cursed with her talent. But also that being a Black woman in a White world is difficult. What was particularly notable about Whitney with regard to those aspects?

I do not think it is a coincidence that the three great Black acts of the 1980s, Michael Jackson, Whitney and Prince (which were perhaps also simply the three greatest acts of the 1980s) all died within a few years of each other in similar circumstances. All three were addicted to drugs, they were all reclusive and they all struggled with their racial identity. These racial issues are so complex to discuss within the framework of a two-hour film, so I largely settled for representing them visually - showing for instance the irony of Whitney singing the Star Spangled Banner - the American Anthem - when she had grown up amongst the terrace riots of Newark in the 1960s. There is much more about the racism experienced by her mother and father that I just didn’t have the scope to include in the film, although I believe it influenced her enormously.


Can you say a word about the editing process? Did you encounter any difficulties?

It was a very, very hard edit. I would not have got through it without the good nature and talent of my editor Sam Rice-Edwards. It was hard not only because Whitney retains her mystery and is so opaque, never revealing herself in interviews, but also because so many of the people I talked to while making the film were reluctant to tell me the truth. They have been lying about Whitney for so many years that telling the truth was difficult. We edited for about 18 months and we only shot the final interview, the most important interview in the film, two weeks before locking the cut.


Your documentaries often sound like fictions. Is that something you are aware of or is it more unconscious?

I like to approach my documentaries as fiction and my fiction as a documentary…!


Mick Jagger, Bob Marley and now Whitney Houston. What interests you most in making documentaries about famous artists struggling with secrets?

I guess I am fascinated by trying to understand them simply on a human level. I’m bored by “icons”. I always think that the criterion for judging a film about an artist is the question: “Do you appreciate their art more after watching my film?” If the answer is yes, then I have succeeded.

Written by Benoit Pavan

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