“The biggest devil is me,” Whitney Houston told Diane Sawyer in her most infamous interview.
It was an exchange confirming years of speculation that the pop superstar had struggled with substance abuse, a dependency that ultimately contributed to her death at age 48 in 2012.
By the time the interview — the same one where she proclaims “crack is wack” — appears in “Whitney,” a new documentary on the late singer, the viewer has already seen enough of Houston’s downfall to know far more was at play with the singer than once believed.
The tragedy of Whitney Houston has been well told — particularly in the years since her heartbreaking death, hours before the Grammy Awards — yet parts of her story remained untold.
Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Kevin Macdonald and given the blessing of the late singer’s estate, “Whitney” has already made headlines out of Cannes and will surely earn a place in the pop culture conversation this summer.
The film reveals a singer who struggled with her identity on and offstage, someone who was haunted by her childhood and unable to overcome her demons.
Pegged as the “unvarnished,” definitive story of Houston, Macdonald’s retrospective is the second documentary about the singer in the last year, following Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s 2017 film, “Whitney: Can I Be Me.”
Both films trace the singer’s path to pop ubiquity from her youth amid the turmoil of Newark, N.J., in the 1970s and finding her voice in church under the tutelage of her mother, Cissy Houston.
Cissy, an extraordinary gospel singer who toured with Aretha Franklin, groomed her only daughter to sing “from her gut … and her heart,” which eventually caught the attention of producer Clive Davis, who signed a teenage Houston and launched her to stardom in the late ’80s, and remained a key fixture in her career until the end.
We know the story from there: Girl meets bad boy (R&B heartthrob Bobby Brown) and continues to reach dizzying heights of pop and Hollywood fame, until her once incandescent presence and goosebump-inducing voice begin succumbing to a cocaine addiction that unravels her in front of the world, turning her into a sordid tabloid fixture before ending her life.
Where “Whitney” ultimately separates itself is in Macdonald’s access to her family and the contextual lens he provides to her storied career.
Even though Houston reached stratospheric levels of pop stardom, she struggled with feeling unaccepted by black listeners. The director links her insecurities with her blackness to a childhood plagued with enough bullying that her parents changed her school (her peers, Cissy says in the film, were jealous of Whitney’s lighter complexion and statuesque looks).
“Whitney” offers new insight into her most majestic triumphs, including her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl and the heights that 1992’s film and soundtrack “The Bodyguard” took her to. Previously unseen footage of her rehearsing and recording are glimpses of her gifts, made foreboding by the film’s exposure of the pain she carried.
Macdonald deftly explores how the singer was encouraged, if not forced, to present herself in a particular way for the public’s consumption — which meant shielding her sexuality, described as “fluid” by her closest friends and colleagues.
Through a wealth of interviewsm the film begins to crescendo toward its most startling mo-ment. About three-quarters through the film, brother Gary alleges he was molested by cousin Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy’s niece and the younger sister of soul singer Dionne Warwick.
And Dee Dee — a soul and gospel singer who was eclipsed by Dionne’s success and died in 2008 — allegedly did the same to Whitney.
“I think she was ashamed. She would wonder if she did something to make (it happen),” says Mary Jones, Houston’s longtime assistant and the one who found her lifeless body.
It was a secret the singer kept from her mother (Pat confirms she too was told; Cissy doesn’t discuss it — or any of her daughter’s darker moments — on camera) and Jones posits it was the driving force of Houston’s discomfort with her own sexuality.
Ultimately, Macdonald has given audiences a potent assessment of one of the most tragic stories in pop history — one that, sadly, could have been different had Whitney had the room to be Whitney.