DIR: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal • WRI: Nick Broomfield • PRO: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin • DOP: Sam Mitchell • ED: Marc Hoeferlin • MUS: Nick Laird-Clowes • CAST: Whitney Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown
Whitney: Can I Be Me? is an appropriately tragic yet surprisingly eye-opening documentary on the rise and fall of singer and actress Whitney Houston. Directed by Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Tales of the Grim Sleeper) and Rudi Dolezel, the film uses never-before-seen archival footage from the musician’s tours – along with interviews of those close to her – as a means of dissecting the reasons (childhood, race, relationships, fame) that led to her premature death.
Although the documentary’s rise-and-fall narrative has been seen before – particularly in relation to Asif Kapadia’s recent Amy (about the similarly troubled musician Amy Winehouse) – there is much supremely fascinating about Whitney: Can I Be Me?. Taking its title from a repeated mantra said by Houston, the film posits the singer as being someone unable to truly be herself in almost any aspect of her life. People, including members of her family (her father did sue her), saw her less as a person with personality and desires than as a cash cow. Her producers had her ignore her black soul music roots in order to appeal to a wider demographic. A reported lesbian relationship between Houston and her close assistant, Robyn Crawford, was stymied due to homophobia in the music business and the tabloids. Even after her bodyguard (a warmly offbeat and kind David Roberts) wrote to her family and producers regarding her alcohol and drug addictions, no one intervened because the singer was the one keeping them in business.
With this knowledge in mind, clips of interviews with Houston at the height of her fame – shown throughout the documentary – definitely give the impression of someone anxious to appease various parties. The way she answers or even skilfully dodges questions regarding critiques of her music or who she was romantically involved with highlights how hard the singer was trying to appeal to her family, her record label, her fans – both black or otherwise.
It’s a shame that Houston felt forced to put on airs because in the archival tape (taken from home video or footage shot on her 1999 world tour) where she is seen acting naturally with friends and family, she comes across as a warm friendly person. A moment in which she and husband Bobby Brown – during the early, happy years of their marriage – perform skits together from their favourite movies is both charming to watch, but also unsettling with the foresight of what was looming on the horizon.
Whitney: Can I Be Me? doesn’t transcend the typical tragic musician documentary. However, it is certainly emotional and complex. Considering Houston’s fame, I assume many know what an immense talent the singer was. Yet, they may be unaware of how complicated and multi-faceted she was too.
12A (See IFCO for details)
Whitney: Can I Be Me? is released 16th June 2017