The first voice you hear in the opening moments of “Whitney,” the searing documentary about the late supernova, 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, which opens Friday, is the first biopic 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 all 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 nailed her iconic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl, 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, however, 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, Georgia, where she and Brown lived in dramatic fashion in the early 2000s with daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown, who, eerily, 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 Georgia.
On Monday, a screening of the documentary in an Atlanta drew a large crowd of people who knew Houston from her Georgia years, including those with whom she attended St. James United Methodist Church.
Talking to The Altanta Journal-Constitution the next afternoon from North Carolina, where another screening of the documentary would take place, 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.
Here are some excerpts from the conversation:
Q: How are you doing? 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. It gets to be lonely sometimes and 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. She always wanted the very best for me and for me to be happy. But I’m good. The healing is good.
Q: Did Gary feel a sense of catharsis talking publicly for the first time about the abuse he and Whitney endured with Dee Dee Warwick?
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 can express how I feel. 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 in Whitney’s history. (Houston’s longtime assistant) Mary (Jones) even refers to their home as an “evil dwelling.” Do you agree with that?
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. Everywhere you go, there you are. 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. I saw someone who was in trouble. 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: Now that we have this official recounting of Whitney’s life and death, 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 just unfortunate that they didn’t protect that gem. 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. She is Whitney Houston, (one of the) biggest-selling female artists in the history of music.
“Whitney” is in theaters July 6.
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