Based around 1999 concert footage and backstage access, this documentary attempts to explain the downfall of megastar Whitney Houston. Friends and family discuss her drug abuse and the factors that led to her tragic death in 2012.
She was never particularly cool, but it would take a pretty uncompromising music snob to deny the once-in-a-generation talent of Whitney Houston. That peerless voice — yes, Mariah, peerless — and poised beauty made her a superstar, before she succumbed to drugs and eventually death. Nick Broomfield’s doc attempts to explain where it all went wrong, but despite new revelations, it can’t quite illuminate her fate.
Houston expertly controlled her own image — a drawback for a filmmaker like Broomfield.
While Asif Kapadia’s Amy, which this inevitably resembles, covered a relatively compressed period, this film has to negotiate a longer life with less unseen footage. We do get some fascinating glimpses behind the scenes, with a 12-year-old Houston performing in her mother’s choir and offcuts of a nervous interview as a teenage sensation. But an unfinished 1999 project by Broomfield’s co-director, Rudi Dolezal, provides the tour footage that forms the spine, and that’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s just one moment in her career. Broomfield notes they were her final successful shows, but there’s no smoking gun to explain her fall. And, after refusing to take part, the only input from her mother Cissy, husband Bobby Brown and best friend (and, according to tabloid rumours, lover) Robyn Crawford are Dolezal’s ’99 interviews. It makes the film feel very dated.
Nevertheless, Can I Be Me? does offer a welcome element of correction to the public myth, undermining the belief that Brown was wholly responsible for Houston’s ills. Her brothers reveal Houston used drugs (though it doesn’t specify what kind) from childhood. She was not simply the innocent victim of a bad man; she made her own choices. It also makes clear Brown gave Houston something she needed: they met at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, where Houston was booed for “selling out” to white audiences. What better retort than to date “bad boy” Bobby Brown? Private video shows a deep love and a shared goofy sense of humour. Still, Brown is charged with damaging an already fragile sense of self-esteem that drove her deeper into the mire, and the film is scathing of both Brown and Houston’s failure to protect their daughter.
To build his story from limited footage, Broomfield cuts together time-periods in ways that can feel disingenuous — David Roberts, a bodyguard who left Houston’s employment in 1995, gives his account next to footage from 1999. The backstage footage sells the idea that Houston’s friend and manager Robyn Crawford was in love with her, but never captures Houston returning her affection, despite the claim that Crawford and Houston had a lengthy affair. And if the amount of material available in Amy increased as she spiralled, here the trickle dries to nothing in the early 2000s. Her mother is rumoured to be making her own documentary — perhaps it will surface there.
At least we’re reminded how extraordinary Houston’s voice was. A close-up on her performances show she never phoned it in, and those opening bars of I Will Always Love You are still breathtaking. But again, this relies too much on that 1999 footage rather than her other work.
Houston expertly controlled her own image — setting the template for Beyoncé, Rihanna and others who succeeded her — but this is obviously a drawback for a filmmaker like Broomfield. Despite his multiple explanations, ultimately Whitney is the missing piece of this puzzle.
An informative but incomplete look at Whitney Houston’s life and death, this will frustrate fans as much as it fascinates them.