Film Reviews

Review: ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me?’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Whitney: Can I Be Me?
(UK, 100 min.)
Dir. Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)

Like Amy and What Happened, Miss Simone?, Whitney: Can I Be Me? celebrates the brilliance of a great artist and charts her tragic downward spiral. The film originated with Rudi Dolezal, whose close relationship to Whitney Houston led to a documentary project in the late nineties. For various reasons, and after several efforts, the film was never completed and released. Much of Dolezal’s footage forms the core of this collaboration with Nick Broomfield, who doesn’t play a directorial character in Whitney: Can I Be Me?

The forceful opening of the film juxtaposes the night Houston died with images of her performing during her last tour. We see her power and beauty and vulnerability. Someone says that she died of a broken heart.

Broomfield and Dolezal recount the familiar events of Houston’s life and her tumultuous relationships: her origin as a musician in church, a history encapsulated by footage of her singing gospel at age twelve; the inspiration of her mother, gospel and soul legend Cissy Houston, and their ambiguous relationship; the night she was devastated by getting booed on the TV show Soul Train because she was supposedly selling out black music with her crossover appeal. Black and white footage depicts her roots as a hood girl in Newark, New Jersey.

The Soul Train fiasco recalls the folkie attacks on Bob Dylan when he went electric and veered toward rock ‘n’ roll. As soon as Houston broke through creative barriers and became a pioneering forerunner of artists like Beyoncé, Houston had to navigate rough waters. But contrary to pop mythology, the doc does not suggest that her husband, singer and dancer Bobby Brown capsized her.

Dolezal’s intimate footage of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown reveal a sunny, frisky relationship, not a scary violent one. For sure, he did not introduce her to drugs. Whitney, whose brothers say that the Houston kids, like everybody else, started drugs young, turned Bobby onto coke while he opened her up to alcohol. The film does not judge this behaviour as being typical of the music industry. It just shows it.

For whatever reason, perhaps the simple fact of addiction, perhaps deeper needs and impulses, Houston couldn’t control her appetite for crack cocaine highs. People who don’t live on her plane of excess and creative risk-taking have trouble understanding why such an extraordinarily beautiful woman with a voice like rich silk would hide in a closet pulling on her pipe full of poison.

Throughout the doc, Houston’s bodyguard, a real-life counterpart to her fictional protector played by Kevin Costner in the 1992 film The Bodyguard, talks about the warning letters he wrote to people in her life. He insists that if they had listened to him she wouldn’t have died on May 27, 2012.

The Houston estate does not like this film and has tried and failed to stop it. Through Dolezal’s footage, some of it backstage material that so one has seen before, we get up close and personal with Houston. We see the tension on her face as she pushes herself to the limit, to the point where her mouth strains with pure emotional honesty and her back gleams with the sweat of her effort—and the impact of drugs.

Can I Be Me? is not a scandal flick that sadistically denigrates a great artist. It’s raw, but also compassionate, and loving. The doc honours Houston’s relationship with tall, powerful Robyn Crawford, who she loved and who made her feel safe. Brown and Crawford hated each other, and that’s also part of this story.

The film allows Whitney Houston to be herself: sublime artist, caring human being, bi-sexual lover, and self-destroyer. Unfortunately, she took her place with Billie, Bessie, Nina, and Janis on the tragedy train.

Whitney: Can I Be Me? screens:
-Saturday, May 6 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 12:45 PM
-Sunday, May 7 at Toronto Centre for the Arts at 9:15 PM

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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