Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s moving new documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me opens at the end of the story of Whitney Houston, with chopper shots of the hotel where she died in 2012, and the 911 call reporting it. It’s a sharp, immediate reminder of the shock of that death, even though we heard and saw that she was sick; like Elvis and Michael Jackson, we assumed that because they had super-human talent, they must have super-human strength. But from that opening scene, this is not just another story of a superstar done in by the pressures of fame and temptations of drugs, as one of her many confidantes lays out the film’s thesis: “I know Whitney Houston actually died from a broken heart.”
The co-directors participated in less of a traditional collaboration than a hand-off. Dolezal shot hours of previously unseen all-access footage from Houston’s 1999 world tour – her last successful one, we’re told, and “a major turning point in Whitney’s life” – which Broomfield has supplemented with traditional biographical footage and current interviews with the musicians and support staff from that tour, along with family, friends, colleagues, and her own archival interviews. The concert footage underscores her skill as a performer; right off the bat, we see her singing her mega-hit cover of “I Will Always Love You,” and just watch the ways she works the pause before “And IIIIIIIIIIIIII”, milking the crowd, which celebrates the moment in anticipation of its arrival. That voice was an incredible gift, but as the tour progressed, it became clear she wasn’t taking care of it, or herself in general.
In between tour vignettes, Broomfield fills in the background: her childhood in Newark, her shockingly early drug use, her entry into music (including remarkable home videos of her and her recording artist mother, Cissy, singing in church), her signing with mentor Clive Davis, and their legendary 1983 appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. Broomfield focuses on Davis’s deliberate decision to make and market Houston as a pop, rather than an R&B, artist, and what that did to her disposition as she ascended; she seems so genuine and open in these early clips, but her favorite saying was “Can I be me?” A collaborator recalls that this was “the conundrum – damnit, I have made all this music, and made all these people happy… why can’t I be me?”
Part of her inability to “be me,” the film posits, grew out of her close relationship with lifelong friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, who offered her “safety and solace,” and perhaps more. Whatever the particulars of that relationship, a woman of Whitney’s fame at that particular moment couldn’t be openly bisexual, and her religion and family forbade it – so much so that, in an interview a year after her daughter’s death, Cissy Houston tells Oprah Winfrey that such a relationship “absolutely” would have upset her. (She said that on television, after her daughter was gone. Imagine what she said in private while she was alive.)
Enter Bobby Brown, the perfect counter to both the bi rumors and “sell-out” controversy, and though Can I Be Me is often the portrait of a truly toxic marriage (particularly the degree to which Bobby and Whitney ended up feeding each other’s demons), it’s not a one-dimensional one; you see how much Brown and Houston cared for each other, in charming hotel hang-out home movies and backstage pep talks. But there is undeniable tension between Bobby and Robyn, which creates a love triangle like something out of a soap opera, and Dolezal’s cameras capture many sad and telling images – private moments, in which her struggle is apparent, coupled with painful home movies, reality show clips, and a fair amount of gossip (but gossip that sure seems credible).
His footage would have made for a fine tour documentary – the performances are often inspired, and the backstage material is fascinating. But as part of Can I Be Me, it becomes more, from this distance; a sadness overwhelms the images, both for what Whitney was, and for where she was headed. (That goes double for the brief appearance of tiny daughter Bobbi Kristina, who would herself die at 25.) The songs are often electric, but that’s not what sticks; I keep recalling an incredible shot of her alone in a mirror, after a show, lost in thought but clearly, indescribably sad.
Broomfield is a filmmaker who is often quite present in his documentaries (even in Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, his earlier profiles of musicians who died too young) – ever the investigative documentarian, chasing down interviews and lugging his boom mike. But here, intriguingly, he’s never seen, and his customary narration is absent (we don’t even hear his voice, apart from the occasional off-screen question). He seems to have made the decision to tell her story without explicitly editorializing, merely presenting it as the tragedy it became.
So Whitney: Can I Be Me is an effective and often harrowing portrait of addiction, a la Amy a few years back, but its real genius – emotionally and narratively – is to frame Robyn as Houston’s Rosebud. In its closing minutes, writer Alison Samuels insists, “Robyn was the person that was keeping her together”, and even Brown admits, “I really feel that if Robyn had been accepted into Whitney’s life, she’d be alive today.” That it went the other way is just gutting – particularly when weighed against the film’s final title card, which hints at the kind of life Houston could’ve lived, had she been free to.
“Whitney: Can I Be Me” airs tomorrow night on Showtime.