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Review: Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

Directed by: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal | 105 minutes | documentary, music | Featuring: 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 decline had been publicly in the picture for years, the news that had died on February 11, 2012 was a shock to many. The multi-award-winning pop singer was only 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 fellow countryman 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 is her mother and soul singer 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 got her signed in 1983 with record labels Clive Davis’s Arista Records. Young Houston molded it in such a way that it would appeal to the white audience as much as possible. And that while Whitney really was a child from the Newark, New Jersey ghetto. In the film it is suggested that she never felt completely happy in Arista’s straitjacket. Would the documentary therefore have been christened “Whitney: Can I Be Me” (2017)?

Everyone knows how Whitney fared after 1983. She has earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “Most Awarded Female Act of All Time”. It is estimated that she has sold close to 200 million albums in total. Without Whitney, contemporary black singers like Beyoncé and Rihanna could never have achieved the successes they have now, according to one of Whitney’s most loyal backing singers. In the early nineties 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 very height of her fame, Whitney tied the knot with the five and a half years younger and known as rebellious and dissolute Bobby Brown. For years it has been claimed that Brown first exposed Whitney to the drugs that would prove so destructive to her, but in Broomfield’s film we see that Whitney experimented 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 whopping fifteen years in all, despite Brown’s extramarital escapades (which are briefly touched upon) and his loose hands (which, curiously, are totally overlooked).

Broomfield, not averse to a bit of gossip and backbiting, also incorporates a third person in the story, Whitney’s best friend Robyn Crawford, who has been her support and support since her earliest years in the spotlight. Crawford is tall, strong, with a short haircut, and she plays basketball. Oh yes, she’s also openly lesbian. To what extent did Whitney and Robyn’s relationship go beyond friendship? Because Whitney “must have been bisexual”. As soon as comes into the picture, the influence Robyn Crawford has on Whitney Houston’s life diminishes. The bomb finally bursts during Whitney’s European tour in 1999, her last at the level we are used to from her, although we see in the unique visual material both in front and behind the scenes that it takes a lot of effort. After that tour, Robyn puts his friendship in the willows, 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 issue.

‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ has a fairly standard structure: the 1999 tour as a thread, in between chronologically telling her life story and chronicling her life story through images of that particular February 11th, 2012. Broomfield has brought together quite a few people from Whitney’s entourage: musicians, backing singers , make-up ladies, stylists and other indirectly involved parties are discussed (although the British former bodyguard does give very nice contributions). We only see archive footage of the real protagonists – her parents, Robyn Crawford, Bobby Brown. A pity, because we would have liked to know more about them. In addition, Whitney’s relationship with her equally tragic daughter becomes r Bobbi Kristina, who was in a coma for six months after an overdose in the bathtub (like her mother) before dying at the age of only 22, did not work out too effectively. Biographically, “Whitney: Can I Be Me” is pretty sparse: there is a lot of suggestion, but Broomfield can’t prove much. The real reason to watch this film is therefore that unique concert footage (in Rotterdam, among others), in which a visibly weakened shows her unparalleled singing talent for the last time. A shame that such an immense talent had to have such a tormented soul.

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