A powerful documentary, made with the co-operation of Whitney Houston’s family, reveals that she was abused as a child by her cousin, Dee Dee Warwick, the sister of the famous singer Dionne Warwick. Even after Dee Dee died, ten years ago, Whitney never spoke out about the abuse. Then six years ago, Whitney herself tragically died aged 48, alone in a bath in a hotel room.
The sexual-abuse revelations – delivered with sensitivity as part of the wider story in Whitney, a film by Scottish director Kevin Macdonald – perhaps go a long way to explaining Houston’s struggle with drugs and addiction in her later life. Despite a brilliant career, selling 170 million albums and gaining world renown for her role in the film The Bodyguard and the anthem I Will Always Love You, her life was blighted by sadness.
Whitney premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday – and the sheer highs of the singer’s landmark performances contrast horribly effectively with the grim lows of her private life. Another revelation came as the film focused on Whitney's long lesbian relationship with her manager and best friend Robyn Crawford, which was also never acknowledged by the singer. The Houston family were all in the Whitney business – a permanent, paid entourage – and there was a sort of omerta about anything that would tarnish the hit-making machine.
Whitney’s 85-year-old mother Cissy – interviewed in the New Hope Baptist Church in New Jersey, where her child first sang – makes no comment on the allegations.
It is Whitney’s half-brother Gary who eventually speaks up about being abused by Dee Dee along with Whitney when they stayed with her between the ages of seven and nine. Dee Dee was more like an aunt, as she was 18-years older than Whitney, and looked after the children when their mother was away on tour singing and their father was working. Whitney’s long-term assistant, Mary Jones, also confirmed that the singer had spoken to her about being “molested” as a child by Dee Dee. Whitney’s 85-year-old mother Cissy – interviewed in the New Hope Baptist Church in New Jersey, where her child first sang – makes no comment on the allegations.
The film also shows some glorious musical moments, from Whitney’s early television appearances to her moving interpretation of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, which left fans in tears. But Macdonald knew there was so much more going on beneath the surface after he conducted over 70 interviews with family, friends and colleagues. “So I would say there were a lot of lies,” he said in Deadline, “and that just makes you intrigued.” As he continued to look at interviews with Whitney herself, he realised, “she felt uncomfortable in her own skin”.
Macdonald delves deep into the madness of Whitney’s world: her tumultuous marriage with singer Bobby Brown, the moment when her own father sues her, and the excesses and joys of immense wealth and bad 1980s fashion.
The documentary has some wonderful childhood home video footage and casual phone or video clips of the wild life backstage and in Whitney’s entourage. In a similar way to Asif Kapadia’s Amy, it is a chronicle of a death foretold, but foretold with a new kind of intimacy that only footage from friends and family can provide.
Whitney is out July 6