The phenomenal rise and tragic demise of Whitney Houston is an almost archetypal saga of success, excess and the scarcity of second acts in American lives. But it becomes a little too archetypal in the hands of British director Nick Broomfield, whose new bio-documentary on the late singer is heavy on glib generalizations but light on sharp insights or juicy revelations.
That said, Houston’s enduring superstar glow and a vault full of superlative, previously unseen footage should ensure healthy interest in Can I Be Me, which world premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival this week ahead of its Showtime TV launch later this year. Theatrical roll-out in various European markets will also follow over the coming weeks.
Opening with the fraught 911 call that alerted the world to Houston’s death at the Beverly Hilton in February 2012, at the age of just 48, Can I Be Me then scrolls back to her early life in New Jersey. Mentored by her proud but controlling mother, gospel singer Emily “Cissy” Houston, she soon excelled as a soloist in her local Baptist church choir. A spell as a teenage model and backing vocalist led her to Clive Davis of Arista Records, who carefully molded the young star for maximum appeal to mainstream white audiences. And so began a record-smashing, Grammy-winning career that spanned world tours, blockbuster movies and close to 200 million album sales.
Broomfield highlights some key factors that fuelled Houston’s self-destructive fall. Her close relationship with longtime gal pal and personal assistant Robyn Crawford, widely rumored to be a lesbian romance, begins to implode after she marries bad-boy rapper Bobby Brown in 1992. Estrangement from her beloved father John, who becomes embroiled in a bitter $100 million lawsuit against his daughter from his deathbed, is another body blow. The marriage to Brown becomes stormy, boozy and druggy, wrecking Houston’s health and voice. The film mentions his infidelities, but not his 2003 arrest for physically assaulting Houston, an oddly coy omission which smacks of backstage deal-making.
Can I Be Me seeks to build a case that Houston was destroyed by a toxic mix of social, parental, financial, sexual and racial pressures, but these conclusions feel too fuzzy and vague to carry much weight. Broomfield has a solid track record of campaigning documentaries, but his music films are often his weakest. Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie & Tupac (2002) are mostly notable for their flimsy claims and unproven assertions.
Broomfield shoots for the same kind of interview-rich intimacy as Asif Kapadia’s terrific Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (2015), but he falls short. Crucially, he fails to secure first-hand access to key players including Brown, Crawford, Cissy Houston and Davis. Although he works around this obstacle to some degree with archive clips, he inevitably ends up giving too much credence to the fringe players from Houston’s entourage who consented to be interviewed. One claims “Whitney had the career that her mother really wanted.” Another says she “died of a broken heart.” This is tabloid-level pop psychology, banal at best, dishonest at worst.
At least the film offers some welcome comic relief in the form of Houston’s former bodyguard David Roberts, a ruddy-faced Welshman with a military background and a poetic turn of phrase, who comes across like a satirical Simon Pegg creation at times. Amusingly, Roberts makes a point of refuting any personal parallels with Kevin Costner’s character in The Bodyguard: “I did not make love to her.” His duty of professional care towards his boss finally crossed a red line when he tried to warn Houston’s managers about her deepening drug dependency. He was removed from his job soon afterwards.
For Houston fans, the true buried treasure in Can I Be Me lies in the extensive archive material shot by German director Rudi Dolezal for a shelved documentary about the singer’s 1999 European tour, her last major global venture. A music video veteran who has worked with numerous legends including Queen, The Rolling Stones, Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Elton John, Dolezal secured extensive backstage access to Houston, Brown and Crawford just as their open-secret ménage-a-trois was acrimoniously unraveling. The chemistry between the trio, both sexual and romantic, is electrifying and oddly touching.
Dolezal’s close-up concert footage is also a joyous reminder of Houston’s effortlessly engaging stage presence and soaring, octave-vaulting, transcendently soulful voice. We are left with a powerful sense that her death was a tragic loss, both privately and publicly, but Can I Be Me never quite tells us why.
Production companies: Lafayette Film Production, Passion Pictures
Directors: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal
Screenwriter: Nick Broomfield
Producers: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoeferlin
Cinematographer: Sam Mitchell
Editor: Marc Hoeferlin
Composer: Nick Laird-Clowes
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)