There’s little riper for a heartstring-plucking documentary than the life of a beloved star cut tragically short. In British filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’, he paints a poignant picture but struggles to get to the heart of his subject.
This is ironic, as the title of the film is a reference to Whitney Houston’s own assertion that she commits a lot of time to being what other people want her to be: “Can I be me, now?” At one point, an interviewer asks how she wants to be remembered. In her typically disarming style – a deft marriage of thoughtful authenticity and practised evasion – Houston retorts that it surely doesn’t matter as people will just remember her as they want to. It’s an insightful moment into her personality but also acts as a pointed critique of a film attempting to piece together a portrait from the suppositions and recollections of a variety of friends and colleagues.
That’s not to say that the film lacks substance. Much discussion has revolved around the access that Broomfield has – particularly in comparison to Kevin Macdonald, whose official documentary about Houston, sanctioned by family and estate, will be following shortly. It is noticeable, even without knowledge of this fact, that the films lacks direct dialogue with several key people in Houston’s life (in particular her husband, Bobby Brown, and best-friend, Robyn Crawford) and there are certain well-known songs omitted. However, Broomfield seems to relish the challenge, weaving together archival material with a jackpot cache of never used behind-the-scenes footage, originally shot by Rudi Dolezal during Houston’s last major tour in 1999.
The result is a compelling re-telling of the singer’s story: her beginnings in New Jersey; her gospel singer mother; her choir debut; pop stardom; The Bodyguard; her tumultuous relationship; crippling drug addiction. Throughout, Broomfield uses the footage to add colour and nuance to these familiar beats. Clips of Houston and Bobby Brown don’t play to the assumed narrative in the way that Asif Kapadia’s Amy sometimes did. There is no implied malice and Houston’s drug problem far pre-dates her bad-boy boo. Instead, they’re shown, via Dolezal’s uniquely intimate footage, as a boisterous and loving couple – though there is no doubt about their mutually destructive behaviour.
More revelatory is Houston’s relationship with Crawford which is revealed as having been romantic at one time and the dissolution of which probably expedited the singer’s downward spiral. A quote from Bobby Brown at the film’s close implies it was Crawford’s influence which meant the most. The tragedy – particularly by this stage – is stark, and the tale well told; it is just a shame that for all the knowledgeable voices knitted together in sharing their versions of Houston’s story, that she still ends up being the Whitney that other people want her to be.
Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ is out on DVD, Blu-ray & digital. whitneyhoustonfilm.com
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson