How a Director Uncovered Whitney Houston’s Secret Pain

Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston in the documentary about her.

In one of the many troubling moments in the new documentary “Whitney,” a record label executive, Joey Arbagey, describes what it was like trying to make an album with Whitney Houston around the turn of the century. One of the biggest stars in the world, just a few years past her triumphant peak starring in “The Bodyguard” (the 1992 hit that spawned a 17-million-selling soundtrack), she was mired in drug addiction, emotionally battered, creatively adrift.

Mr. Arbagey recounts the many months wasted, the millions of dollars spent, just trying to get her into the studio for a usable session. “Deep down,” he says, “she was a girl in pain.”

This pain runs throughout “Whitney,” the first film to be authorized by the Houston estate (another documentary, “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” came out last year, without the participation of Houston’s family and with limited access to her recordings). Directed by Kevin Macdonald — whose credits include the Oscar-winning documentary “One Day in September” and the acclaimed drama “The Last King of Scotland” — the movie examines the phenomenon and tragedy of Houston, perhaps the greatest pure singer of her generation, whose tabloid-fodder decline reached its seemingly inevitable end with her 2012 death in a Los Angeles hotel bathroom at the age of 48.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Macdonald — who was brought into the project by Houston’s agent, Nicole David — said that he was certainly aware of Houston’s music when he was growing up but wasn’t particularly a fan. “It felt like an interesting challenge,” he said, “making a serious film about somebody who was not taken seriously.”

He discovered a life full of betrayal and disappointment, from both of her parents having affairs during her youth to being booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards when the Rev. Al Sharpton accused her of ignoring her black fan base. It’s a story in striking contrast to the carefully manicured image of her early days — “the prom queen of soul,” as a newscaster chirps in one clip.

The documentary, which was released this month, has received largely positive reviews, with some critics especially impressed by the unsparing portrayal given that the film was sanctioned by Houston’s estate.

Pat Houston, who is married to the singer’s half brother Gary Garland-Houston and is the executor of her estate, said that it was important for the family to speak openly about Whitney’s struggles, including her drug use and her relationship with longtime friend, assistant and rumored lover, Robyn Crawford. “Her family had to share her with the world and protect her image,” she said in a telephone interview. “Always having to walk on eggshells” when talking about her — “that’s not a way to live.”

Toward the end of “Whitney” comes a revelation that is presented as a possible key to the singer’s suffering: She and her half brother were molested as children by their cousin Dee Dee Warwick, a moderately successful R&B singer and the sister of Dionne Warwick. During the course of production, Mr. Macdonald began to suspect that there might be abuse in Houston’s past.

“As I looked at footage of Whitney, she seemed uncomfortable in herself, physically uncomfortable,” he said. “It reminded me of people who had some childhood trauma.” He found a BBC radio interview from the 1980s in which she expressed her anger at child abusers. “It makes me crazy when people treat children badly,” she said.

The director spoke to addiction specialists, trying to understand why Houston and her brothers, Gary and Michael, all battled advanced drug problems. A year into the process, in his third interview with Gary, Mr. Macdonald broke through. “Gary said that the origin of his own addiction, and the reason he could not fully heal, was the recurring images of when he was abused as a child.”

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A preview of the film.

Two weeks before the finished edit of the film was due for the Cannes Film Festival, Houston’s aunt and personal assistant Mary Jones agreed to share what the singer had told her about the molestation, and said that Dee Dee Warwick, who died in 2008, was the assailant.

Pat Houston was concerned about naming Warwick, fearing that it could cause division in the family. “But I know the struggles my husband had all his life,” she said, “and I had to think about him and Whitney. It’s good that these men were able to open up and speak about certain things — it was very therapeutic in some ways.”

(The singer’s mother, the gospel and soul singer Cissy Houston, recently condemned the film and said she and another relative could not “overstate the shock and horror we feel and the difficulty we have believing” the accusation against Dee Dee Warwick.)

Among the most disturbing elements of “Whitney” is watching those around Houston take shameless advantage of her fame and wealth. After her initial breakthrough, her father assumed control as her manager and stole millions of dollars; her brothers accepted jobs in her touring entourage and supplied her with drugs.

Others simply stick to convenient denials. Houston’s former husband, Bobby Brown, refuses to acknowledge her drug use. L.A. Reid, head of Houston’s record label during the catastrophic years recounted by Mr. Arbagey, claims he had no knowledge of her addiction.

“We hear a lot of how much people loved her,” said Pat Houston. “Everybody loved her, but no one would step up and help her. No one said ‘I’m not going to work for a person on drugs like this — I’m not going to be a part of this.’”

Ms. Crawford, who did not grant Mr. Macdonald an interview, haunts the film. Though Gary Garland-Houston describes her as “evil,” “wicked” and “an opportunist,” she seems like she might have been the only person who had Houston’s best interests in mind.

As deep as “Whitney” explores Houston’s life offstage, it spends far less time on her music. Though Mr. Macdonald illustrates the astonishing reach of her success — Saddam Hussein used an Arabic version of “I Will Always Love You” as his campaign theme — her voice seems to exist as a kind of superpower she can turn on at will. In a section on her unforgettable performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, we learn that she listened to the music director Rickey Minor’s arrangement exactly once before recording the song in a single take.

The director contrasted Houston with Amy Winehouse, another self-destructive singer who was the subject of a high-profile documentary.

Winehouse “was articulate in front of the camera, her music was directly autobiographical,” he said. “Whitney was so much more mysterious — she was hopeless giving interviews, always surface-level, and she never wrote her own songs. So it’s really about the nonverbal message she’s imparting.”

It may have been challenging to get family members to open up for “Whitney,” but ultimately they saw the benefits of an honest treatment. “Whitney’s legacy was so damaged that having a film which was allowed to go anywhere it wanted was not going to destroy her reputation,” said Mr. Macdonald. “Hopefully, it would humanize her and allow people to feel more empathy, more compassion for her.”

Pat Houston, for one, still finds it difficult to talk about her late sister-in-law. “Everything else,” she said, “pales in comparison to her dying so young.”

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