The music world is littered with tragic stories of popular singers and their downfall – from Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Most of these stories follow a similar trajectory – a rise to fame at a young age which they struggle to handle, and a descent into drugs.
This unauthorised documentary about the late Whitney Houston is a tender and poignant portrait of the singer who was one of the most successful female singers of all time. But it falls short of the heights achieved by Amy, Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the tragically short life of singer the late Amy Winehouse – arguably, one of the finest music documentaries ever made. Whitney: Can I Be Me is the 28th film from veteran documentary filmmaker and provocateur Nick Broomfield, who has created cinematic portraits of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, serial killer Aileen Wuornos, Sarah Palin, notorious Hollywood madame Heidi Fleiss, and rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur.
What Broomfield gives us here is another variation on the archetypal story of an artist’s rise to fame and fall from grace. The film traces Houston’s meteoric rise from humble beginnings singing in the local choir in Newark, New Jersey, through to her international fame as a singing superstar and winner of seven Grammy Awards, and her eventual downward spiral due to drugs, her troubled relationship with bad boy rapper Bobby Brown, and her tragic death from a drug overdose in a bathtub at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2012 at the age of 48.
But this is mainly a film for fans of the late singer, as it is not as insightful or revealing as either Amy or the superb Little Girl Blue, the Amy Berg documentary about the late, great Janis Joplin that also briefly screened last year. Broomfield does however link some key moments to her ultimate downfall – her controlling parents from who she hid her sexuality, her relationship her best friend and closest, most trusted confidante Robin Crawford, her record company’s efforts to shape her and package her for mass consumption, her toxic relationship with Brown, and the unexpected booing she received while accepting awards at the 1989 Soul Train Music awards.
Broomfield has a bit of a reputation as a muckraker who often plays fast and loose with inconvenient facts, but here his approach is a lot more subtle. What emerges is a subtle portrait of the high price of fame and ambition, but also a look at the ambitious family members and record company executives who exploited her and moulded her public image.
Broomfield has assembled the film from a wealth of archival footage, numerous television interviews that Houston conducted with the likes of Diane Sawyer and Oprah, and a number of intimate interviews with a number of people who worked with her at the height of her fame, including her personal bodyguard David Roberts. Broomfield has also included plenty of previously unseen footage from Houston’s 1999 My Love Is Your Love tour, shot by Rudi Dolezal, an uncompleted documentary which shows her vocal power at its finest. Broomfield has also included some clips from the 2005 reality television show Being Bobby Brown, which seemed to presage Houston’s emotional implosion.
What is missing though are interviews with key figures in her life – her family and close advisors like her mother Cissy, her best friend Robin Crawford, and former husband Bobby Brown. Broomfield deliberately avoided including them because he thought the film would not be completely honest with their input. Broomfield even manages to gloss over the allegations of domestic abuse that tainted her volatile relationship with Brown. But given the importance that Crawford played in Houston’s life, as, the lack of her personal insights is a major flaw in this otherwise fairly comprehensive documentary. Broomfield touches upon the intimate nature of their relationship.
And, like his fellow contemporaries Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, he is often a constant and mischievous presence in his documentaries, often appearing on camera with boom mike in hand, door stopping his interview subjects with tough and pointed questions. Here though he has largely removed himself from the picture, allowing the portrait to unfold from Houston’s own words.
Broomfield samples many of her well known songs for the soundtrack, and there are even brief clips from her film The Bodyguard, in which she essentially played herself opposite Kevin Costner. The soundtrack of that film, which featured the Dolly Parton penned hit I Will Always Love You, is one of the biggest selling soundtrack albums of all time.
Whitney: Can I Be Me never quite lets us get as close to the singer as Kapadia did with his Amy. Houston’s family are apparently planning their own “authorised” documentary to be released next year, and that is likely to be more of a hagiography.
Director: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal
Release Date: 15 June 2017
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television