'I've become more and more convinced of her genius' - director Kevin McDonald on Whitney Houston
Film-maker Kevin Macdonald was not a fan of the singer when he agreed to make a documentary which unearthed a childhood trauma that rocked the Houston family, who'd given him unrestricted access. But by the end of filming, he tells Hilary A White, he felt enormously close to the tragic diva
'It has the shape of classical tragedy, like it almost belongs to mythology, someone who is somehow determined to destroy themselves. There is the car-crash aspect, but there's also something deeper than that to do with mortality and the self-destructive impulses maybe we all have."
Kevin Macdonald smiles gently. A leg and a clean runner hang over the side of his armchair, amplifying any sense that the celebrated Scottish film-maker is rather relaxed today. We're only days away from the release of Whitney, his rigorous psychological profile of Whitney Houston, the tragic US pop star who died in 2012 at the age of 48. By the time you read this, it will have had the widest UK and Ireland cinema release for a documentary ever. If he's nervous, he's not showing it.
We've just been talking about why documentaries such as (the much comparable) Amy and the peerless OJ: Made in America elicit such strong responses from viewers. Macdonald - who came to worldwide recognition in 1999 for his Oscar-winning examination of the 1972 Munich Olympics, One Day in September - has been wondering aloud if documentaries have undergone a slight dip in popularity of late.
While their box-office take is dwarfed by feature films, there is no doubting that a slew of documentary releases in the last 15 years or so (Blackfish, The Act of Killing, Searching for Sugar Man, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, et al) seemed to reverberate right through audiences and out on to the street. One Day in September, Touching The Void (2003), Marley (2012), and now Whitney suggest that Macdonald has been part of this non-fiction momentum.
"They don't have the simplicity, and sometimes stupidity and predictability, of fiction films," the 50-year-old reasons. "It feels like we're all so familiar now with the traditional three-act structure that, actually, stories that are more complex, more naughty, that allow for disagreement and discussion, are more interesting to us."
That said, Macdonald belongs to that Werner Herzog tradition of moving between the documentary format and the feature film, depending on which way the wind of curiosity is blowing.
The Last King of Scotland (2006), his dramatic debut, nabbed Forest Whitaker an Oscar for his portrayal of Ugandan leader Idi Amin, while dystopian teen romance How I Live Now (2013) also won praise for its young star, Saoirse Ronan ("She's the greatest talent I've worked with, and when I worked with her, she had her 18th birthday on set. She's the new Meryl Streep").
Family (he and art director wife Tatiana have three teenage children) often comes into play for the simple fact that documentaries, he explains, where shoots are shorter and the bulk of time is civilised nine-to-five post-production, are generally less taxing on school routines, etc.
"Also, they're so different," he laughs, "you finish one and you're like, 'god, I couldn't do another one of those right away'!"
His plans to follow up Whitney with a dramatised TV miniseries about the Lockerbie bombing and a feature film based on The Guantánamo Diaries might perhaps be evidence of a similar desire for a change of scenery following a project that he found himself becoming emotionally involved in.
"I've never had quite the same experience before," he says of Whitney. "I started out curious about her but not a huge fan. At times, I really didn't like her while making the film, and then I would fall deeper in love with her. By the end, I felt enormously close to her and felt admiration for her musically. I've become more and more convinced of her genius. I've actually cried at some of her music - I'm not a big crier and I don't really cry at music very often, but I always felt that was what her outlet was for all of the pain she went through in her life, the confusion. She never really grew up because of the trauma in her childhood. It all came out in the sound of the voice."
At the height of her powers, Houston was the biggest solo act the music industry had ever witnessed, and no slouch at the cinema box office, too. A mighty but dexterous vocal range that could inhabit the emotional meter of songs like few others came packaged in cover-girl looks and a doe-eyed wholesomeness that was catnip to zillions.
Her subsequent downfall played out like an elaborate tabloid farce, the result of a toxic emulsion of a troubled childhood colliding with too many flashbulbs, too many drugs and too many ne'er-do-wells in her immediate sphere looking for a slice of her. Classical tragedy is right.
From Billie Holiday right the way through to Whitney Houston, do we perhaps romanticise these tragic divas too much? Macdonald believes we might.
"During screenings of this film in the US, I got into a lot of interesting discussions about the power of the media and the way that she was put into a very unhelpful tabloid media box. Some of the most awful parts of the film are those clips of comedians taking the piss out of her in a such a cruel way. I think it makes us feel a little bit complicit. In the Amy film, we are made to feel very complicit. You almost feel bad for watching her, like you're part of the problem. But I think this film is a little different because it is a psychological investigation as to how can we understand her better. Also, Whitney didn't die at 27. People who die in an untimely way who are artists, somehow that validates their art, we feel. Why culturally we feel that, I don't know."
Macdonald, a Glasgow teen when Whitney was the 1980s queen of pop, was initially reluctant to get involved when approached by producer Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man). Very soon after speaking with Houston's former agent, he began to see that family and friends were still bewildered by her untimely death. Added to this was the sense that this extraordinary talent was being remembered for the wrong reasons.
Macdonald was given unprecedented access to his subject, including unnerving home-video footage and testimony from those closest to her. Never did the Houston estate insist on signing off on anything, suggesting to Macdonald that while they may not have consciously wished to lance a family boil, they possibly did so subconsciously.
"They let me have the final cut but it wasn't like they said, 'we want to open up'," he recalls. "It took a long time and a lot of poking around before some of them did open up."
The full cooperation of Houston's estate secured, Macdonald set about interviewing all those in her orbit, including steely mother Cissy Houston (who groomed Whitney for a career in song from youth), brothers Gary and Michael, notorious husband Bobby Brown, and those who watched from a short distance away. A staggering childhood trauma is unearthed, namely that Houston and Gary were allegedly abused by their older cousin, the late singer Dee Dee Warwick (sister of Dionne).
"We had a lot of discussion about the ethics of including that because Dee Dee is no longer alive and can't defend herself," Macdonald says of this #MeToo moment. "But we felt that because Gary made the same accusation and is still affected by it, it was the right thing to do. I was just in New York last week for a screening and the family are really glad they did the film because it's made them all talk about things they should have talked about a long time ago."
This, Macdonald agrees, is the power of great documentary film-making - the ripples can reach the very world we live in.
"The whole family also said to me afterwards, 'this film could have a very positive impact for African Americans because for us therapy is taboo. We don't do therapy. It's actually a good advertisement for talking about all the things we sweep under the carpet."
Whitney is in selected cinemas nationwide