A new bio-doc of Whitney Houston includes terrific never-before-seen footage of her 1999 tour, onstage and backstage, and a few “new” revelations about her sexuality.
Whitney. Can I Be Me?, a documentary by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, begins with the assertion that Whitney Houston “died of a broken heart,” after a long struggle to live more authentically. That bit of pop psychology is voice-over for an overhead shot of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where Whitney’s body was discovered on February 11th, 2012. It fades to 1999 and Frankfurt, Germany, one of the cities she played in the last successful tour of her career.
This sequence is the audience’s first glimpse of co-director Dolezal’s footage of that tour, which was shot for a concert film that he was never able to produce. The backstage moments of Whitney, her husband Bobby Brown, and their entourage, are also from Dolezal who was apparently given free reign. This astonishing, never-before-seen footage of Whitney, a six-time Grammy Award winner, attests to her singularity—but also to her substance abuse. It is what allows audiences of Whitney. Can I Be Me? to navigate the slick, expertly edited melange of original interviews and televised interviews that unfortunately reduce the extraordinary Whitney Houston to a “broken hearted” girl.
Missing from Whitney are original interviews of Robyn Crawford, a close friend from childhood and the woman the bio-doc claims was the vocalist’s lover, as well as Clive Davis, the record producer who launched her career. Featured in another Tribeca Film Festival bio-doc, Chris Perkel’s Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of Our Lives, he remained Whitney’s producer and friend until the day she died. Given the claims of Whitney’s bisexuality, it is surprising that the filmmakers do not mention her appearance in 1999 at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Parade where she sang “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Several interviewees attest to the close relationship Whitney shared with Crawford, including singer-songwriter Patti Howard, who toured with her, and David Roberts, her bodyguard for nearly a decade, as well as two executives from Arista Records, Davis’s label. Crawford’s absence, along with that of Houston’s mother, both of whom appear only in archival clips, portend another Whitney Houston documentary.
After the opening sequence, Whitney launches into the six-time Grammy Award winner’s childhood that began in Newark, New Jersey, several interviewees claiming she had roots in “the ’hood.” Others paint a very different picture of the young Whitney, describing a lineage that immediately spelled success—mom Cissy Houston was a celebrated gospel singer, and Dionne Warwick was Whitney’s cousin. Aretha Franklin was a family friend. Clips of a young Whitney singing with her mom at church establishes the vocalist’s strict upbringing, and Cissy’s honing of her daughter’s unique mezzo-soprano voice.
Whitney. Can I Be Me? goes on to paint an oft-told tale of female performers driven to depression, drugs and suicide by families who rely on their income. (Comparisons to Asif Kapadia’s excellent documentary Amy, about vocalist Amy Winehouse, are inevitable.) The filmmakers craft a story complete with a controlling mother, an avaricious father and an uncaring husband, although the latter, singer-songwriter Bobby Brown, is clearly misrepresented. He was a physically abusive husband. While Broomfield and Dolezal may have had the best intentions, their documentary springs from a simplistic, sexist view of women as victims, rather than as complicated human beings whose stories resonate with historic patterns of disenfranchisement and, in the case of Whitney, racism.
Everyone interviewed for the documentary has a different take on who or what kept Whitney on drugs, but there is no doubt about how her addictions affected her career and her personal life. Whitney’s hairdresser says “everybody did drugs,” and that the singer’s two brothers got her started at a young age. Roberts explains how he was fired after he wrote a letter to Whitney’s managers describing her drug use. He states what is apparent in a clip from Dolezal’s tour footage of Whitney bringing her 6-year-old daughter onstage: Bobbi Kristina may have been doomed from the start. She died from a drug overdose two years ago at age 22.
Whitney. Can I Be Me? includes a clip from the 1989 Soul Train Awards ceremony that depicts a little-known incident in which Whitney was booed by the mostly black crowd, apparently because her music was not black enough. Four years later, Whitney received the prestigious Sammy Davis, Jr. Entertainer of the Year Award at the 1999 Soul Train ceremony. The filmmakers are remiss for not including her acceptance speech in which she eloquently defended her pop music career by citing Sammy Davis, Jr.’s accomplishments. She said that he “endured insults aimed at him by his own people for trying to rise above the ignorance and hatred, not through rhetoric but through his work.”
As Patti Howard says of Whitney in the documentary: “She changed history for us.” The “us” is black performers. Among many Billboard firsts, Whitney still holds the record for the best-selling debut album of any female vocalist. In a 1996 interview clip, she is asked if success has changed her. The vocalist’s riposte: “Success doesn’t change you. Fame does.” How did fame change Whitney who had been groomed from the start by Clive Davis to be a star? That is not a question this documentary answers, and maybe what matters more is Whitney’s astonishing distinction between the fulfilling emotions of hard work leading to great success, and the perception, conferred by others, of fame. The Whitney biography that investigates this conundrum must sacrifice entertainment and headline-grabbing “revelations” for thoughtful analysis, the kind Howard articulates in this bio-doc.