Whitney: Can I Be Me review: A cautionary tale told with probing analysis of gender, class, and race

Can I Be Me is the question posed in the film’s title. With so many people dependent on her keeping up appearances others created for her, that was never going to be a possibility

Geoffrey Macnab
Wednesday 14 June 2017 12:58
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Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston

Dir: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal, 90mins, featuring: Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown

Nick Broomfield’s poignant new documentary about the doomed singer Whitney Houston is likely to induce the same queasy feelings in audiences as those they experienced with Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse film. You watch both with a sense of dread and of morbid fascination These are ritualistic stories about immensely talented stars whose lives unravelled in a tragic fashion.

Whitney Houston was the singer whose debut album sold 25 million copies. There are plenty of interviewees to testify that she had a voice that was “angelic”. Her former band members are the ones who seem most in awe of her.

Her ex-drummer talks about watching her back flex and arch from behind as she belted out her songs. She was like “a doggone bodybuilder”. Her talent was obvious to everyone – and yet she died in a bathtub in a Los Angeles hotel aged just 48.

The strength of the documentary lies in the skill with which Broomfield combines a cautionary showbiz tale with a probing analysis of race, class, gender and celebrity. The structure here is akin to that of a detective story. The filmmakers begin with the death. We hear the audio-recording of the hotel security reporting a 48-year-old woman discovered in the bathroom.

What happened to her? That is the mystery this film is investigating. It’s not a simple case at all. Some says she died of a “broken heart” while others point to the way she was exploited and betrayed by those closest to her.

Her entire family, it seemed, was on her payroll. Her mother was jealous of her success. Her beloved father ended up suing her for millions of dollars. Then there was her tempestuous relationship with Bobby Brown, the "bad boy of R&B".

Some blame Clive Davis, the white boss at the record company who packaged her as a very mainstream pop star and dragged her away from her African-American musical roots in the process. To a few of the religiously inclined, her “gift was from God” and she was the one responsible for “messing it up.”

Whitney Houston documentary, by Nick Broomfield, released in cinemas in June

The film features previously unseen footage of Houston backstage and performing during a 1999 world tour, shot by Rudi Dolezal, here credited as co-director. She’s an astonishing performer, glamorous and with a searing voice, especially when she is reciting the “I will always love you” refrain from The Bodyguard. Inevitably, as strong as she appears on stage, she is vulnerable and mixed up off it.

What Whitney: Can I Be Me makes very clear is the huge and very immediate upheaval that her own sudden and huge celebrity created in Houston’s life. One moment, she was growing up in Newark, New Jersey, in relatively humble circumstances (even if she was Dionne Warwick’s cousin). She read the Bible, went to church and sang gospel.

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Broomfield makes ample use of archive material. This ranges from a Barbara Walters interview to Mancunian TV presenter Terry Christian speaking to Houston on The Word (she teases him for his accent) and, most bizarrely, French crooner Serge Gainsbourg telling her he’d like to f**k her on a French chat show.

The filmmaker has also spoken to many of Houston’s relatives, friends and associates. Cissy, the mother, who emerges in a not very sympathetic light, talks of how she taught her daughter to sing. The devoted British bodyguard, David Roberts (a former Sergeant in Scotland Yard’s Royalty Protection Unit), dryly likens himself to Kevin Costner in Houston’s hit movie The Bodyguard (“absent two elements – I’ve never been shot at while with her and I’ve never made love with her.”)

There are gaps, though. Broomfield hasn’t been able to interview either Robyn Crawford, Houston’s childhood confidant and later her companion, and nor has he spoken to Bobby Brown.

The film details the bitter rift between Brown and Crawford. The former was macho, very wild and cheated on Houston continually during their marriage. He fills a similar role to Blake Fielder-Civil in the Amy Winehouse story. The latter was Houston’s assistant, though many also believed her to be the singer's lover.

Neither could tolerate the other being around Houston. Without their testimony, much of Houston’s life remains shrouded in mystery. There is no “rosebud” moment in which it is explained just why she spiralled downward in such disastrous fashion.

Perhaps mercifully, the documentary doesn’t dwell too long on the tragedy of Bobbi Kristina, Houston’s daughter, who died in similar circumstances to her mother aged only 22. Can I Be Me is the question posed in the film’s title. With so many people dependent on Houston keeping up appearances others created for her, that was never going to be a possibility.

Whitney: Can I Be Me hits UK cinemas 16 June

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