Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)
Directed by: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal | 105 minutes | documentary, music | Starring: Whitney Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford, John Russell Houston Jr., Cissy Houston, David Roberts, Johnny Carson, Serge Gainsbourg, Mike Tyson, Oprah Winfrey
Although her demise had been in the public eye for years, the news that Whitney Houston had passed away on February 11, 2012 came as a great shock to many. The multi-award-winning pop singer was just 48 years old. Tragic stars always do well in documentaries, British director Nick Broomfield must have thought. Broomfield has previously made films about destructive artists such as ‘Kurt & Courtney’ (1998) and ‘Tupac & Biggie’ (2002) and with the success of his compatriot and colleague Asif Kapadia and his impressive tribute to Amy Winehouse (‘Amy’, 2015 ) in the back of his mind, he took a leap into the turbulent life of Whitney Houston. As most people know, she has famous singers in her family – gospel singer Cissy Houston is her mother and soul singer Dionne Warwick is her aunt. It was her mother who mapped out a career for her – “The career she would have liked to have herself,” says one interviewee – and in 1983 got her signed to the Arista Records of record label Clive Davis. This molded the young Houston in such a way that as much as possible would appeal to the white public. And that while Whitney was really a kid from the Newark, New Jersey ghetto. It is suggested in the film that she has never felt completely happy in Arista’s straitjacket. Could that be why the documentary was christened ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ (2017)?
Everyone knows how Whitney fared after 1983. She has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the ‘Most Awarded Female Act of All Time’. It is estimated that she has sold a total of around 200 million albums. Without Whitney, contemporary black singers such as Beyoncé and Rihanna could never have achieved the success they have today, says one of Whitney’s most loyal backup singers. In the early 1990s she made an equally successful transition to film, with ‘The Bodyguard’ (1992), and of course the accompanying soundtrack, as the most striking example. In that year, 1992, at the pinnacle of her fame, Whitney tied the knot with Bobby Brown, who was five and a half years younger and known for being rebellious and licentious. It has been claimed for years that Brown first introduced Whitney to the drugs that would prove so destructive to her, but Broomfield’s film shows Whitney experimenting with her two older brothers as a teenager. In fact, Whitney would have introduced him to drugs, and he introduced her to the temptations of alcohol. Despite this, their passionate and explosive marriage would last a total of fifteen years, despite Brown’s extramarital escapades (which are briefly touched upon) and his loose hands (which are curiously completely overlooked).
Broomfield, not averse to a bit of gossip and backbiting, also includes a third person in the story, Whitney’s best friend Robyn Crawford, who has been her mainstay from her very early years in the spotlight. Crawford is tall, strong, with a short haircut and she plays basketball. Oh yeah, she’s also openly lesbian. To what extent did Whitney and Robyn’s relationship go beyond friendship? Because Whitney ‘must have been bisexual’. Once Bobby Brown comes into the picture, Robyn Crawford’s influence on Whitney Houston’s life diminishes. The bomb definitely exploded during Whitney’s European tour in 1999, her last at the level we’ve come to expect from her, although the unique footage both before and behind the scenes shows that it takes her a lot of effort. After that tour, Robyn will hang up the friendship, no doubt with a heavy heart. From that moment on, the decline really set in and Whitney never recovered. She has always had a love-hate relationship with her mother; her beloved father took her to court on his deathbed in 2003 over a financial matter.
‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ has a fairly standard structure: the tour from 1999 as a common thread, in between telling her life story chronologically and chronicled by images of that particular 11th February 2012. Broomfield has gathered quite a few people from Whitney’s entourage: musicians, backing singers. , make-up ladies, stylists and other indirectly involved are discussed (although British former bodyguard David Roberts does make very nice contributions). Of the real protagonists – her parents, Robyn Crawford, Bobby Brown – we only see archival material. Too bad, because we would have liked to know more about them. In addition, Whitney’s relationship with her equally tragic daughter Bobbi Kristina, who was in a coma after an overdose in the bathtub (like her mother) for six months before she passed away at just 22 years old, is not being worked out too effectively. Biographically, ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is rather sparse: a lot is suggested, but Broomfield can prove little. The real reason to watch this film is therefore that unique concert footage (in Rotterdam, among others), in which a visibly weakened Whitney Houston shows her unparalleled singing talent for the last time. It’s a shame that such an immense talent had such a tormented soul.