Talk to the people closest to Whitney Houston, the ones who knew the singer intimately before she became an Eighties superstar – and long before she became a byword for drug-fuelled tragedy – and one thing emerges: how nice she was.
'She was just a fun girl who could sing her ass off. We laughed like fools – she was like my sister,' says Bette Sussman. The keyboard player met Whitney around 1983, when she was as unknown New Jersey teenager. Sussman had performed with Whitney’s mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, knew her cousin, soul singer Dionne Warwick, and would go on to play with Whitney until 1999. Together they toured the world, performing classics like I Want To Dance With Somebody, I Wanna Know, Greatest Love Of All and Saving All My Love For You.
'She started out a good girl, with a really strong work ethic,' Sussman continues. 'She didn’t take anything for granted – she really wanted to be as great as she could possibly be.'
Rickey Minor was another early collaborator, putting together the band that would help then-18-year-old land a record deal. He remembers 'this tall, beautiful, skinny girl [who] was poised and very elegant for someone that age. She was more worldly, which I think was partly because she’d been a model in magazines. And of course, being around her mom and Dionne, she wasn’t new to the business.'
Soon after, another entertainment industry professional was equally blown away – without even hearing her sing. Hollywood agent Nicole David met Whitney before she’d released any music.
Four decades on, David approached Scottish filmmaker Kevin Macdonald with an idea: would he make a documentary about the high life and tragic death of Whitney Houston? Perhaps he could find some answers. How could such a woman, such a talent, die, her body wrecked by drug abuse, in a Los Angeles hotel bathtub in 2012, aged only 48?
'In those days, movie agents didn’t bother so much about music people,' David admits of her first encounter with Whitney. 'We were very snobby. Representing Emma Thompson was certainly much more long the lines of what I thought was important.'
But she met Houston and was bowled over.
'I saw a vulnerability, and a fear, and certainly one of those most beautiful creatures ever. And I thought: she’s a singer, but if she wants it, she has all the qualities to be a star in movies.'
Sussman, Minor, David – none of Whitney’s early inner circle were incorrect in their initial assessments. Whitney had the talent, and the grace, and the hunger, to go all the way. And she did, in music and movies.
Houston broke records in the charts, landing seven consecutive US Number Ones, on her way to selling 200 million singles and albums. And she broke records at the box office: her acting debut, The Bodyguard, was 1992’s second-highest grossing movie worldwide, and gave Whitney another chart smash with her cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. The soundtrack is the best-selling soundtrack ever.
But as Macdonald’s brilliant documentary reveals in penetrating detail, those golden highs were shadowed by darker lows from the outset. Via no-holds-barred interviews with friends, associates and family members, the Oscar-winning documentarian gradually peels back the layers on a celebrity melodrama with deep personal trauma at its heart.
Normally, the 50-year-old says, he starts his biographical projects really liking his subject.
'But by the end of it, you’ve learned so much about them, you’re less sure!' he laughs. 'But this was the opposite. At the outset, I found Whitney so difficult, and at times so unappealing in some of the archive footage – crass, tacky, cheap – that you reel away from her. But then as the film went on, I began to appreciate her and her artistry more and more.'
He also began to appreciate her tragedy. One well-known aspect of that was her chaotic marriage to bad-boy R&B star Bobby Brown.
'He did not come from the most solid background – that’s an understatement,' suggests Nicole David. “And there he was, walking in and marrying Whitney Houston, who already was a big star – who already had lots of people in whose interests it was that she stayed with her image of a black Cinderella.
'And Bobby Brown was a threat to that. And he was not himself old enough, mature enough, experienced enough, to be able to be a real contribution to her.'
Instead he and Whitney indulged in lots of drug-fuelled partying. But as Macdonald’s documentary shows, none of that was new to Whitney. Her bothers Gary and Michael, who both worked for her, were addicts too, and had already introduced their sister to drugs.
In front of Macdonald’s cameras, both brothers are eye-wateringly candid about the habits the came to define behaviour in Whitney’s inner-circle, and which accelerated her creative decline in the Nineties. The documentary also contains revelations about their father John, who ended up managing Whitney – and stealing from her. And there are uncomfortable home truths about their mother: she had an affair with the Houston clan’s church minister.
But the biggest family bombshell comes from Gary: he claims that in childhood both and he and his sister were sexually abused by their late cousin, singer Dee Dee Warwick, sister of Dionne.
'When I saw that part in a rough cut of the movie, I burst out crying hysterically,' admits Lynne Volkman. She was Whitney’s publicist for 25 years, until the end. “For me, it explained everything. It explained why Whitney became the woman she became. Any child who has trauma like that, they grow up not as a whole person. You don’t trust people. It explains a lot about addiction and alcoholism.”
Lisa Erspamer, a producer on the documentary, met Whitney when she worked on Oprah Winfrey’s chat show, on which the singer appeared several times. She thinks Macdonald’s ultimately sympathetic portrait also offers some explanation for the tragic fate that befell Whitney and Brown’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina. Three years after her mother died, the 22-year-old suffered a horribly similar death.
“I think it helps you understand a little bit how Bobbi Kristina’s life ended so young,” offers Erspamer. “It gives you some perspective on the impact of growing up in the way that she did – so much addiction around her and the impact that has on a child.”
For all its achievements, for all its celebration of one of the greatest musical talents of the last 30 years, what Kevin Macdonad’s documentary can’t do is lessen the tragedy. Indeed, for some of those closest to Whitney, the film only points up the senseless loss of that nice girl they knew and loved.
“I was crushed when I heard she’d died,” says Bette Sussman. “I wasn’t surprised, but I was crushed.” Sadly, she notes, it felt like an inevitable endpoint, “because she wasn’t getting any help. When you’re that much of a mess, and you don’t confront it head on, you don’t survive it. And nobody helped Whitney.