Whitney: Soaring Docu of Talent, Life, and Tragedy by Oscar Winner Kevin Macdonald

Kevin Macdonald’s revelatory documentary, Whitney, world premiered to great acclaim at the 2018 Cannes Film Fest.

Highlights of the Feature

Groomed for superstardom by her mother, singer Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston first wowed crowds at age 11 singing gospel music in Newark’s New Hope Baptist Church. The supremely gifted child stayed with relatives whenever Cissy toured.  Later on, her hard-driving father John moved the family to the middle-class suburb of East Orange.

After her parents divorced, Whitney left home to work as a model in New York City. There she caught the attention of top record company executives including Arista Records president Clive Davis.

Stunned by her charisma and phenomenal voice, Davis signed the 19-year-old Whitney and guided her first album, at 22, to smash hit success in 1985, starting with the release of her first hit, “Saving All My Love for You.”

The Bodyguard

Houston scored six more consecutive No. 1 singles, seven Grammy Awards and a starring role in the 1992 blockbuster The Bodyguard, which featured her smash-hit ballad “I Will Always Love You.” But Houston’s brilliant career gradually gave way to a troubled personal life.

Over the next few years, she survived a volatile marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown, drug abuse, divorce, estrangement from her father, rehab, reality TV and a disastrous comeback tour. She died in a Beverly Hills hotel bathroom surrounded by drug paraphernalia at the age of 48.

Millions of fans continue to wrestle with the mystery: Why did this once-in-a-lifetime talent seemingly sabotage her own bright future?

In search of answers, Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald blends never-before- seen home movies and revealing new interviews with three dozen family members, friends and colleagues to gain insights into the woman known privately as “Nippy.”

Aided by the Whitney Houston estate, the docu also celebrates the artist’s spellbinding performances, including her historic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the 1991 Super Bowl.

Rich in detail and compassionate in its telling, Whitney presents stunning new discoveries behind the rise and fall of an American superstar who seemed to have it all.

 

Origins of Documentary

Lisa Erspamer first got the idea to make a documentary about Whitney Houston when she got to know the singer and her family as co-executive producer of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” where she oversaw the superstar’s famous 2009 two-part interview. “At that time it was jarring to see how people’s opinions of Whitney had changed because of her addiction,” says Erspamer. “It’s very easy to judge someone when it looks like they’re throwing away their God-given talent, and that’s what a lot of people said about Whitney.”

Erspamer wanted to make a documentary that would provide deeper understanding of the woman behind the tarnished public image, and explore Houston’s meteoric rise and the reasons behind her precipitous fall.

In 2015, after helping to launch Oprah’s OWN network and three years after Houston’s death, Erspamer moved forward with her long-gestating plan and approached Houston’s film agent, Nicole David, and sister-in-law, Patricia Houston. “I came to Nicole and Pat with the idea because I felt we could tell this story well and learn more about Whitney, and in so doing have people view her more compassionately, with a deeper understanding,” Erspamer explains.

Patricia Houston agreed to join forces with Erspamer, eager to share insights from family members who rarely spoke on the record about the woman they knew affectionately as “Nippy.” “To tell the story, you need to know the story,” she says. “In my heart of hearts, I feel that if people want to know Whitney’s story, let it be told by the people who knew her from the day she was born to the day she died, and that’s her family.”

Married to Whitney’s older brother Gary, Patricia began managing the singer’s career in 2001. She now serves as executor of her estate, which includes stewardship of a legacy rarely surpassed in the annals of pop music.

Whitney Houston remains the only solo recording artist to score seven consecutive No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. Her influential “How Will I Know” music video helped usher in MTV’s golden age.

In 1992’s The Bodyguard, Houston co-starred with Kevin Costner in a worldwide blockbuster featuring her performance of “I Will Always Love You,” one of the top-selling singles of all time. Releasing seven albums and two soundtrack albums over the course of her career, Houston sold more than 200 million records worldwide and in 2001 signed an unprecedented $100 million record contract. Houston’s charismatic performances encompassed pure pop hits including “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” soaring ballads like “The Greatest Love of All” and up-tempo R&B tracks including “I’m Your Baby Tonight.”

Highly respected by her industry colleagues, Houston was honored with seven Grammy Awards and her extraordinary talent was one reason David decided to sign on to the project as executive producer. But David also wanted to set the record straight about Houston’s private life. “I’ve always been hesitant about doing documentaries or anything else related to Whitney because I felt she’d been used a great deal while she was alive,” says David. “I especially didn’t want to be part of a fairy tale. I just wanted someone to portray Whitney as she really was and not let it be left in the hands of scandal magazines. And I trusted Lisa to get it done.” “All roads lead back to Nicole David,” says Erspamer. “Everyone loves and trusts Nicole, which is why so many people felt safe participating in the film and ultimately opening up about their experiences with Whitney.”

When the three women got together in Los Angeles, Erspamer suggested soliciting the help of award-winning documentarians Jonathan Chinn and Simon Chinn. “We love Simon’s feature documentaries,” Erspamer says. “I was a big fan of Searching for Sugar Man and admired the work they were doing together under their new non-fiction banner, Lightbox. I brought them in as producing partners because I don’t have the cachet in the documentary world that the Chinns have, and we wanted the best team possible.”

Creative Control

Simon Chinn, two-time Oscar winner for Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, embraced the Whitney project, but insisted on one condition: that the filmmakers retain creative control. “When Lisa came to us, I questioned if the family really wanted us to tell the story in an unvarnished way,” Simon says. “In my first conversation with Pat Houston, she was very unambiguous in saying yes, she wanted us to tell an honest, unflinching story and that neither she nor the family would seek editorial control over the film.”

Jonathan Chinn, Simon’s Los Angeles-based cousin with whom he produced National Geographic Channel’s Emmy-winning docu “LA 92,” jumped at the chance to tell Whitney Houston’s life story. “When Lisa’s email landed in my office, feature docs were having a moment, certainly music docs were having a moment, and it just felt like the right time to make a quality film about Whitney that would have the cooperation of the family and wouldn’t be tabloid-y,” the producer recalls.

As their first order of business, Jonathan and Simon met with Clive Davis, the legendary music executive and producer who famously guided Whitney Houston’s career as Arista Records president. He now serves as chief creative officer of Sony Music, which together with the Houston family controls the rights to the singer’s music. “It was important to me, Nicole and Pat that everyone meet with Clive because we wanted him to see that we had put together a world-class team for this woman he loved so much,” explains Erspamer. It was essential to the filmmakers that the film celebrate Whitney’s extraordinary talent through her performances. “Clive actually made a great documentary that had a lot to do with his relationship with Whitney,” says Jonathan Chinn, “but our picture is fundamentally a film about Whitney’s family. Theirs were the voices we felt were important to hear.”

Credits

Miramax and Altitude Film Entertainment present a Lisa Erspamer Entertainment and Lightbox Production, Whitney.

Film editor is Sam Rice-Edwards.

Director of photography is Nelson Hume.

Co-producer is Vanessa Tovell. Executive producers are Nicole David, Pat Houston, Will Clarke, Andy Mayson, Mike Runagall, Zanne Devine, Rosanne Korenberg and Joe Patrick.

Produced by Simon Chinn, Jonathan Chinn and Lisa Erspamer.

Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

 

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