Director: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
Lafayette Films/Passion Pictures/Showtime Networks
A subtly powerful documentary that gets its strength and credibility through the use of footage from a never-before-seen fly-on-the-wall 1999 tour doco (that’s Dolezal’s footage, hence the co-directing credit), it seems important to get out of the way, right away, the type of film that this is not. First off, it doesn’t have the insight/narrative that a film like Amy (the recent Amy Winehouse documentary) offered. That shouldn’t count against it but it’ll be the obvious comparison, even though there’s really no comparison – beyond some surface-tracing of women with powerful voices being deemed self-destructive with unreliable men in their lives. And an obvious tragedy that the footage works toward.
Perhaps more important to mention, this is not your typical Nick Broomfield film. I’m a fan. I love his movies – but the typical bumbling-Brit-with-a-boom is not found here. We hear his voice, off-camera, once or twice. We never see him. And Broomfield’s previous music-related films (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac) had him bouncing around between conspiracy theories. There’s no conspiracy theory here. Just footage of the towering highs and pulverising lows in a pop diva’s life and career. There’s possibly another version of this film – “Whitney & Bobby” – that Broomfield contemplated. I’m glad he went down this path instead.
Bobby Brown is – of course – the villain. And deservedly. Broomfield lets Brown make a giant prick of himself in the found footage from Dolezal’s aborted 1999 tour-doc.
Whitney’s line that informs the title of the film (“Can I be me?”) was something she said – to the people never listening. To Clive Davis, credited with discovering her. To the band members and crew. Broomfield gets to them in fresh interviews.
But the real revelation here is watching Houston – newly at the top of her game – booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. She’s got two of the biggest albums of the 1980s behind her and nearly a dozen hit singles. And when she gets to the top she’s told she’s sold out – an echo of the “Not black enough” taunts she faced as a young New Jersey school tyke. To travel that far and be haunted and taunted around gender and race. Marginalised even when achieving a type of greatness so few will ever reach or even understand.
Tellingly, this is the night she also meets Bobby Brown. He’s hoping to be deemed a bad boy – fleetingly famous and with dubious talent.
As Broomfield’s film cuts in footage from Dolezal’s and bounces back to talking heads of today, we find out about the rivalries and embarrassments. Brown was jealous and desperate and in the 1999 tour Whitney is (still) at the top of her game. But just starting to wobble. Brown’s walk-ons get better, he tries to steal her show, all he’s really capable of is robbing some of the quality time, replacing talent with temerity.
The other key, if reluctant, figure in the film is Robyn Crawford. Whitney’s best friend turned professional assistant. She’s so obviously in love with Houston and hints that they carried out a sexual relationship are only ever teased. There was a triangle of sorts – Crawford the angel on Whitney’s shoulder. Brown the obvious devil.
We know how it ends. Jokes were being made in the minutes or hours after. In the few short years since her star seems to have almost completely faded. This documentary can’t bring anything back as such but it’s riveting to see the footage from across Houston’s life and career. Birth to death. To remember her, too, as a ferocious talent – transcending of taste too. It’s simply irrelevant whether you ever ‘liked’ her music. The voice, the presence, the hits – all irrefutable.
How tragic to see Brown and Houston high and acting out their own pretend dramas, literally impersonating Ike and Tina.
And, hey, didn’t she (and they) almost have it all? Well, yes. But clearly, as this film shows, it was usually off in the distance ahead, or in the rear-view mirror. It was barely ever tangible to her, or to them. Brown a coattail-rider. Houston seemingly the one person in this world who could not be saved by the power of her own voice and performances.
Whitney, Can I Be Me is the opening film as part of this year’s Documentary Edge Festival in New Zealand. The festival’s films screen in Wellington May 10-21, 2017 and in Auckland May 24 – June 5, 2017.