ATLANTA -- The first voice you hear in the opening moments of Whitney, the searing documentary about the late superstar, is the singer herself.
"I would look up to God [and ask], 'Why is this happening to me?'" she says, a haunting recollection given how her life would unfold until her untimely death in 2012.
The two-hour film is the first bio-pic fully sanctioned by Houston's family.
Brothers Gary and Michael, mother Cissy, sister-in-law Pat (also an executive producer of the film), ex-husband Bobby Brown and a cast of close friends and professional contacts contribute candid commentary under the skillful interviewing of Oscar-winning director Kevin Macdonald.
While there is an unshakable sadness that permeates Whitney -- which culminates with Houston's drowning in a bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards -- Macdonald strives to remind us of the reasons why Houston became one of the best-selling female artists in music history, with more than 200 million albums sold worldwide.
From the footage of her first TV appearance in 1983 on The Merv Griffin Show, when she confidently belts "Home" from The Wiz, to the behind-the-scenes tidbits about how she slayed her 1991 Super Bowl rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (shifting it from 3/4 to 4/4 time), we are often able to bask in her vocal splendor.
But Houston's demons are hardly suppressed.
Her drug use -- hidden well for years in a pre-social-media world -- was instigated not by Brown, who is often cast as the villain in her life, but her brothers.
Brown turns defensive when Macdonald inquires about Houston's addiction.
"Drugs had nothing to do with her life," he says flatly.
Equally eye-rolling is the assertion from record mogul L.A. Reid that, "I never knew there was any addiction."
But as the rest of the world knows, there was, and it followed Houston to Alpharetta Ga., near Atlanta, where she and Brown lived in dramatic fashion in the early 2000s with daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died in 2015 after being found face-down in a bathtub in her Atlanta-area townhouse.
Pat Houston, who married Gary Garland-Houston in 1994, was an integral part of Whitney's life for 26 years, both in New Jersey and Alpharetta.
In an interview, Pat Houston delved into some of the key parts of Whitney, including the revelation by Gary that he and his sister were molested as children by their cousin, Dee Dee Warwick.
Q: I imagine it's emotionally exhausting to keep reliving all of this.
A: I always tell people that everything has paled in comparison to Whitney not being here. ... I know she's at peace and doesn't have to deal with this anymore because she had such struggles in her life. I feel good and am comfortable in expressing how I feel about her and life. The healing is good.
Q: How long has this documentary been in the works?
A: Two years. Kevin is one of those premier filmmakers. We gave him the keys to the vault and he took his time and he looked in the vault and this is what we came up with.
Q: How hard was it for her mother to sit through interviews for the film?
A: Losing a daughter at 48 and then your granddaughter at 22 ... [Cissy] had to share her only daughter with the world for a very long time. It's been a trial and a test for the entire family to have to deal with it.
Q: Did Gary feel a sense of catharsis talking publicly for the first time about the abuse he and Whitney endured?
A: Whenever you're in the spotlight all of your life, there's nothing you can do that no one knows about because of your last name. She's not here, so what is there to hide? (Warwick died in 2008.) There's a sense of, I don't have to deal with anything anymore. I don't have to hold on to these emotions. I felt good for him to be able to release that.
Q: The Atlanta years are portrayed as a particularly dark time. (Houston's longtime assistant) Mary (Jones) even refers to their home as an "evil dwelling."
A: Everything that happened to (Whitney) happened before Atlanta. If you really look at the film, from the time she was looking so skinny, she lived in New Jersey. You can't hide from yourself. So she brought that from New Jersey.
I listened to how people say she left all the people who loved her (when she moved to Atlanta). No, none of those people got her into a rehab or talked about rehab. She didn't get to rehab until she got to Georgia, and I was very much involved in that.
When I went on the road in 1998-99, that was when I discovered they all had an issue and I couldn't understand why nothing was being done. She had such a gift and such a talent, but ... by the time she got to Atlanta, she crashed.
Q: Why do you think Whitney liked living there?
A: She found a sense of purpose and freedom by doing things on her own. She didn't have six or seven people in her house all the time. It was much freer for her to really be herself, with people not harassing her.
Q: Mary's recollection of finding Whitney in the bathtub on the day she died seems a little different from what we've heard in the past.
A: No one knows what happened in that room but Whitney and God. It was heartbreaking. Mary Jones was very dedicated. There are a few of us who never abandoned Whitney and Mary stood by her when she didn't have a dime until she got herself together.
Q: It seems as if Whitney really was ready to re-emerge.
A: She really was trying to turn things around. Whitney was working with (producers) Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on a remake of Judy Garland's (1963 movie) I Could Go on Singing -- that was one of the meetings we were taking while we were there (in Los Angeles, when Houston died).
There were many projects that were coming. That Flight movie with Denzel Washington, she passed on it. The movie with Viola Davis and Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Doubt), she would have played the Viola role but passed on it. She really wanted to act more. She was very much in her groove, really trying to come back.
But you know, we have to be very careful of the choices we make in life. I try not to say this should be a cautionary tale, but a lot of young people should see this film.
There are so many shows out there now -- American Idol, The Four -- and all of these kids want to become entertainers. But you have to be ready for that and be cautious of the people around you and the distractions around you.
Q: What do you hope people will be left with?
A: They can see the star that she really was. She had a human story. A story full of triumphs and tragedies, laughter and tears, love and disappointment. Her life mirrors all of ours -- she just played hers out in public.
Her legacy and her life is to be celebrated. She reached a plateau that most folks would never reach in their lifetime. Her dreams and aspirations and hard work got her there.
It's now time to put it all to rest and love her for her music, what you were drawn to in the first place. And give her the props that she deserved.
Style on 07/15/2018
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