Whitney: Can I Be Me (M). Director: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal. Starring: Whitney Houston. 105 minutes
Five years after her death in a drug-related incident at a Beverly Hills hotel, the history of Whitney Houston remains contested territory. This film by infamously shit-stirring filmmaker Broomfield is one of a pair about the singer's life due to arrive over the next 12 months. The other, by The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald, bears the imprimatur of Houston's estate. Broomfield's does not.
Which isn't a surprise, given that Houston's family, notably her notoriously controlling mother, Cissy, is one of the several culprits Broomfield identifies in the tragedy he unfolds. The title references what was apparently a favourite saying of Houston's, a self-deprecating quip that here becomes an epitaph for a life and career inordinately shaped by external pressures.
Broomfield has at his disposal extensive concert and backstage footage shot by music documentarian Dolezal during Houston's 1999 world tour. The tour would turn out to be her last, and Broomfield marks it as a turning point for the singer, both professionally and personally. Her drug taking would spiral during the following decade, ravaging her voice and leading ultimately to her death.
Noteworthy in that concert footage is the brute physicality that underpinned Houston's vocal performances; her epic range and soul-filled delivery, evident in signature hits like I Will Always Love You and just as powerfully in another song in which she merely riffs on a repeated, single-line prayer. One band member compares watching her perform to observing a body-builder at work.
Broomfield tracks Houston's life back to the rundown neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, where she grew up. A naturally gifted vocalist and protégé of her gospel-singer mother, drugs were already a presence in her life by the time she was a teenager. Later this poor urban upbringing would be erased by a record company determined to mould her as a crossover pop princess.
This 'whitening' of Houston's image saw her lambasted as a sell-out by many in the black community. This pained Houston; one former band member reflects that it was one more box checked on the list of things that would lead to her demise. His words are juxtaposed with footage of Houston receiving an MTV award from oh-so-white rock band (and fellow New Jersey natives) Bon Jovi.
"The film stands then as an indictment on those who should have looked out for her best interests, and didn't."
In popular narratives about Houston's life, her husband, hip-hop star Bobby Brown, is often painted as a villain, who ran her down and enabled her drug use. Broomfield's take is more complex; there's a co-dependency, and also a hint that the relationship was, in part, an attempt to reclaim her blackness. Certainly he was one of the few people around whom she felt she could be herself.
Running parallel to this is Houston's intimate, long-time friendship with Robyn Crawford. Broomfield stops short of characterising it as romantic; others do not, and space is given to rumination about the difficulties of being a black, gay woman. In any case, the friendship sparks tension with Brown, and disapproval from Cissy. Crawford's abrupt departure from the tour is another turning point.
Brown, Crawford and several other key figures are absent from Broomfield's film, except in canned form. As such it lacks the intimacy and potency of, say, Asif Kapadia's super 2015 film about Amy Winehouse. It is an intriguing but limited portrait, that pays due tribute to Houston, while probing for answers in a manner that is rather reserved by the typically didactic Broomfield's standards.
In his thesis, Houston's drug habit is a reaction to these various threats to her authenticity. He finds a key witness in former security guard David Roberts, who claims to have pleaded with Houston's family in 1999 for an intervention, and was subsequently dismissed from his duties. The film stands then as an indictment on those who should have looked out for her best interests, and didn't.
Whether Macdonald's upcoming 'authorised' account tells a different story remains to be seen.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.