‘Her story has the shape of a clas­si­cal tragedy’

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

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‘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

Saoirse Ro­nan is the great­est tal­ent I’ve ever worked with... she’s the new Meryl Streep

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

Cu­ri­ous: Mac­don­ald was not a huge fan be­fore mak­ing the film

Clock­wise from main: Whit­ney dur­ing her 80s hey­day, with hus­band Bobby Brown, with friend Robyn and other pals; and dur­ing child­hood as she was groomed for mu­si­cal star­dom

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