Nick Broomfield’s infamous gonzo-style takes a backseat in his latest venture, Whitney: Can I Be Me, more of a celebration of the artist herself than a scathing, behind the scenes Whitney Houston portrayal. Through archive footage and excerpts from Houston’s 1999 tour that proved to be her last successful one, (filmed by Rudi Dolezal for a music video that was shelved), Broomfield presents not just one of the most wildly famous singers of her time, but a highly manufactured mythology. The film addresses fame and the barriers between reality and fantasy, condensing the truth behind the “Princess” myth into an emotional 105 minutes.
Whitney: Can I Be Me skates over the singer’s drug addiction, instead focusing on the tempestuous union with Bobby Brown, her Newark beginnings and her legendary voice. What’s left is a generalised celebration of a manufactured icon that fails to prick beneath the surface. Home movies offer a glimmer of a different Whitney — a joker, re-enacting movie scenes with Bobby in a hotel room — but the narrative focus shifts to broader themes: music, sex, celebrity, tragedy, death.
The scenes with Bobby are electric, but the 14-year relationship is compressed and doesn’t reach any kind of depth. The film’s treatment of Whitney’s longtime best friend and alleged lover, Robyn Crawford, is particularly harsh, with her love for Whitney appearing one-sided and unreturned.
However, as a white, straight filmmaker, Broomfield doesn’t shy away from the still-important issues surrounding young women in the music industry: race and gender. A record executive said “we don’t want a female James Brown,” which illuminates the racism that surrounded Whitney’s early breakthrough. Anything that “sounded too black” was discarded. Whitney was to be “white-friendly,” a concept that blew up at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards when she was booed by other black artists who felt she was “too white.”
Whitney’s battle was more than just one against drugs. A battle for her own identity moulded from the very beginning, first by her mother Cissy and then by her label, then by Bobby Brown and a controversial marriage. Ultimately, Whitney evolved into a timeless artist, a woman that had to prove herself to the masses in order to pave the way for current stars.
The best documentaries are lessons in universality, stringing together themes rather than anything specific about the subject. And Whitney: Can I Be Me plays out like a tragedy of the most cinematic kind. The film doesn’t seem to offer anything new, as it’s more of a love letter to a musical icon. What’s left are the reverberations, the echo of a life, the magic that comes with our ability to transform a young girl from Newark, New Jersey into a superstar.
Katie Driscoll (@katie1435) is a film programmer in Brighton, UK. She’s passionate about feminism in horror films, documentaries and Jack Nicholson.