Maria Flood takes a look at Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s review of Whitney Houston’s life, which screened at the Guth Gafa International Documentary Film Festival, taking place at Headfort House, Kells, Co Meath.
Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me about pop superstar Whitney Houston’s life straddles a sometimes uneasy line between the tabloid theatricality of Houston’s public persona and the intimate tragedies that populated her private life. The film opens with a bang: a swooping overhead establishing shot of the Beverly Hills hotel where, on 11th February 2009, Houston’s body was found in a hotel room bathtub. The next scene cuts to a performance during Whitney’s last world tour in 1999. Houston’s face reveals what, in retrospect, could be signs of her increasing drug use: her eyes are half closed, her make up is smudged, and she is sweating profusely. Although she is performing in front of thousands of people, the extreme close up of Houston’s face makes this scene almost intimate – we feel we are right there with her, as she sings the final notes in a verse of the worldwide hit ‘I Will Always Love You’. The music stops, waiting for the big chorus – but Houston doesn’t rush it. Seconds tick by as she gathers her body, before exploding with the famous ‘And I….’ chorus.
It is impossible not to be blown away by Houston’s talent. Whitney: Can I Be Me charts its extraordinary genesis in the troubled streets of Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s where race riots were common and drug use rising among African American communities. Houston, daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston, cousin of soul legend Dionne Warwick, and godchild of Aretha Franklin, accumulated an astonishing number of accolades and firsts: more consecutive number 1 hits that The Beatles, most awarded female act of all time, with all seven of her albums reaching diamond, platinum or gold certification. The height of Houston’s fame was the 1992 film The Bodyguard which Houston’s real-life bodyguard David Roberts suggests was just like real life, but with ‘no sex and no shooting’. Patti Howard, one of Houston’s friends, suggests that without the trailblazing of Whitney, African American female artists like Beyoncé would not be where they are today, noting ‘she changed history for us’.
The film is careful to avoid easy answers regarding Houston’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. Instead, Broomfield and Dolezal seem to suggest that Houston’s tragedy lay in the many internal conflicts she battled with: between white pop music and her roots in church gospel, between her controlling mother and her loving, but ultimately, disappointing father, between her image as a white-styled princess and the ‘hood’, and between her love of God and her addictions. Houston believed her talent came from God, and her abuse of it through drugs and alcohol was a source of deep shame for the singer.
However, most powerfully, the film suggests that Houston’s possibly romantic relationship with childhood friend Robin Crawford, and their later alienation in 2001, was the greatest contributing factor to Houston’s fatal addictions. Crawford, now an openly gay marketing manager who is married with two children, was by Houston’s side from the early days of her career and stayed through the troubled years of her marriage to Bobby Brown. After Houston’s death, Brown even admitted that he believed Houston to be bisexual, and suggested that if Robyn had been in her life, Whitney would still be alive today.
Houston, many of her friends agreed, never doubted her talent. What she did doubt, most tragically, was herself. We see Houston’s fragility in her frequent refrain, ‘Can I be me’ – when can she stop performing for others, and be herself. But this self fragments over the years – through fame, drugs, and the loss of love. As she said in an interview, ‘success doesn’t change you, fame does’ and Houston seemed fatally underequipped to navigate its vicissitudes. This film is a touching and sometimes uncomfortably intimate exploration of a unique talent that presents Houston as a sensitive and generous person, brought down by racial and sexual politics of the era and the exploitative workings of the star system.
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