Director: Nick Broomfield/Rudi Dolezal
Towards the end of what is a predictably gloomy, gruelling story told in reverse chronology, a still at the top of her game Whitney Houston is asked how she’d like to be remembered. As befits someone who, as the movie shows, consummately managed to handle characters as diverse as an out of his depth Terry Christian and the pissed-up old perv who was Serge Gainsborough, Whitney answers that she doesn’t much care, but would like to be thought of as ‘nice’.
Whitney was nice. In fact, part of her problem might well have been that she was too nice.
I certainly didn’t enter the cinema with such an impression. I was never a fan and although I didn’t actively dislike her music at the time, I was very much a take her or (preferably) leave her merchant, finding her vocal gymnastics and obligatory power ballads slightly irritating, if just about tolerable. In latter years however, since her tragic demise, I actually did start to dislike Whitney, or or any rate, her legacy. Every cut-price TV talent show perpetually seemed – and seems – to have a roster full of Houston would-be’s, desperately trying to impress the judges with their contrived facility to make a note last longer than double maths on a Friday afternoon; rather than being fondly remembered as ‘nice’, this is Whitney’s legacy and personal views aside, you’d have to think it’s a consequential one.
Everybody thinks they know the Whitney story and it’s fairly dutifully recounted in a movie which blends Rudi Dolezal’s original fly on the wall doco from a European tour in 1999 with Nick Broomfield’s more contemporary talking heads. A child prodigy and scion of Sweet Inspirations backing singer Cissy Houston, Whitney was a MOR all-conquerer up until drugs, Bobby Brown and the incessant demands of a family who all depended on her for a livelihood exacted their cruel revenge. Interviews with band members and footage of concerts, where although past her best, she was still damn good, fill in the gaps, revealing the constant pressure she was under and the innate anxiety and low self-esteem which meant she was unable to adequately deal with it. Berated by the black community for being ‘too white’, a judgement brutally evidenced by her being booed at the Soul Train awards, Whitney duly takes up with Bobby Brown, a character who comes across here as singularly unpleasant as well as completely inoculated against talent. Desperate not to be seen as ‘Mr Whitney’, BB – quite possibly unconsciously – decides to be ‘Mr Fuckwit-ney’ instead, crashing her concerts and introducing her – apparently – to the alcohol she’d previously managed to eschew.
Not drugs though, no one pins that one on Bobby, Whitney’s brothers cheerfully accepting that they did that all on their own, back when their little sister was in High School – ‘it was part of our culture’, they declare, hailing as they did, from the ‘hood.
‘Whitney was always street’, more than one commentator recalls, asserting that she didn’t need Bobby to provide her that sort of cred, the first indication that maybe Bobby is an easy, if not altogether undeserved, scapegoat .
Although it seems germane to compare this movie to the Any Winehouse story, it’s not a fair match up. ‘Can I Be Me’ is an inferior, less intimate experience, even though it leaves the viewer with an analogous and enduring sense of sadness. Towards the end, the footage of Whitney battling a chronic drug addiction is truly horrifying, a double take being required to even identify her, such was the comprehensive nature of her physical drug-fuckedness.
Unusually sensitively, Nick Broomfield does not dwell overlong on Whitney’s last roundup, a license he also extends to the equally tragic daughter of Whitney and Bobby Brown, Bobby Kristina, who also died of drug addiction at the preposterously early age of 22. It’s not entirely spelled out, but it seems this was a child who was not afforded what Aussie’s refer to as ‘a fair go’.
‘Can I Be Me’ is not an easy watch – quite literally in the case of Dolezal’s grainy, home movie quality 1999 footage – as Broomfield’s interviewees describe a magnificent talent squandered due to incessant pressure, bad choices and crucially, lack of familial support. The issue of her sexuality is considered – Whitney’s life long friend Robyn Crawford is coyly hinted at as her lover – a connection all the more bittersweet considering their total estrangement over the last years of Whitney’s life.
I watched the movie in an otherwise empty cinema and as the credits ran, I sat in doleful silence at the waste of lives as well as that of singer’s career. As I pondered, a young cinema attendant, waiting to prepare the room for the next showing asked me if I’d enjoyed the film.
‘It was a bit depressing’, I replied.
‘What a shame’, she countered, ‘who was she, anyway?’
I’m laying bets she’d have recognised Whitney’s legacy. Maybe, she’d even consider that her voice was ‘nice’.
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
Amy, The Voice.