An Austrian who lives in Miami Beach, producer-director Rudi Dolezal’s music videos and docs have platformed musicians ranging from Bob Marley to Queen, The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Best known for the Grammy-nominated Miles Davis and Quincy Jones: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story, Dolezal had a long, warm relationship with Whitney Houston, the subject of the new film he co-directed with Nick Broomfield. Whitney: Can I Be Me? has a long history behind it.
Back in the 90’s, Dolezal and Houston decided to make a film together. He shot her in concerts, recorded interviews, and captured intimate backstage moments. “She was always reliable,” he recalls. “She was always nice, always open. She was never difficult in the filming process.” Before the project launched, Dolezal asked for and was granted complete access. “Whitney designed a pass for me saying ‘Everywhere Rudi wants to go.’ That was my backstage pass.”
After Dolezal accumulated many hours of footage, “Everything was perfect. I’m super happy with the results. With Whitney I had the feeling I did all my other projects as a rehearsal for this one. And then she was sent home from the Academy Awards.”
In 1999, Houston was slated to perform at the Oscar ceremony, but musical director Burt Bacharach deemed her unable to do so. “We never talked about drugs,” says Dolezal. “I had never seen her taking drugs.”
The project stalled. As a filmmaker, Dolezal needs complete access to the subject, and the freedom to tell the unvarnished truth. For him, it would be disrespectful not to. “There are directors who do a walk onstage that is not a real walk on stage,” argues Dolezal. “I want to see the sweat. I want to see the nervousness. For me, that’s rock ‘n roll.”
After the Oscar fiasco, Dolezal wanted to at least acknowledge the drug problem he was discovering. He told his subject that Whitney Close Up (the working title) needed “another interview, and you don’t have to talk a lot about it, but if you just say yes, it’s true I’m having a substance problem, but I’m working on it. The fans would love it. But she said, ‘No no no, I don’t have a substance problem.’ She was in complete denial.”
In the aftermath of Houston’s 2012 death, there were offers to release a version of Dolezal’s project with The Greatest Hits album, “but I said I want to do a documentary. The record company wanted only the concert film.” When another window opened up, Dolezal was told “who I should interview or not interview. In other words, Robyn Crawford (Whitney’s long-time friend and lover) and her husband Bobby Brown would not be allowed. Can you imagine a film on Whitney Houston without her husband, the father of her only child? Or the more than 20-year confidante? Ridiculous.” It would be like a film about Bob Marley without Rita.
Eventually, powerful figures wanted to acquire the footage. Industry legend Clive Davis “called me and wanted to buy it. People from Oprah Winfrey’s company Harpo, called me. I said I’m not an agency. I’m a filmmaker. I feel responsible for Whitney and what she and I had in mind. If it’s not that vision, I’m not in even if they pay $5 million.”
When it looked like the Whitney Houston project was dead and buried, Dolezal “felt like a musician who wrote his best song and nobody’s ever going to hear it.”
And then suddenly he “was contacted by an archive producer for Nick Broomfield. She wanted to know if I was interested in collaborating. She looked at the footage, and she called Nick, and said, ‘You should meet Rudi.’ The next day he was at my house with two bottles of red wine.” Broomfield wanted to codirect, “and his vision was a filmmaker to filmmaker thing, it was not business. I said ‘Okay, maybe this is the route to go. Maybe it won’t be my film, but it’s our film, and at least the footage is out.’”
Broomfield “is a very respectful director,” says Dolezal. “I was very honoured, and the collaboration was without any problems. Also, it made my broken heart a little bit less broken.”
Moreover, Broomfield “brought in an angle on things that I wouldn’t have done. I brought in not only the footage but also angles that he probably wouldn’t have done. We influenced each other in a positive way. Nick never met Whitney, and that is obviously another positive. Sometimes being close is good, sometimes stepping back is also good.”
For Dolezal, “What is so special about Can I Be Me?, is that I have backstage footage which shows a Whitney nobody has ever seen.”
The singer’s family saw the doc, and “they tried to stop it,” says Dolezal. “There was a recent lawsuit against me, personally, which I won. Because they are in charge of certain legal things,” he continues, “they think they are Whitney Houston. They’re not. Whitney Houston was first of all, a very nice person, and a great artist. And I’m talking art. Not money.”
While Dolezal does not want Houston’s drug problems to dominate discussion of the project, he does have ideas about why someone with Houston’s talent and beauty would have such a craving for substances that get you high.
“People like Whitney, or Keith Richards,” Dolezal argues, “always go for the impossible, where nobody has ever been. Freddie Mercury was told you couldn’t have the Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s seven minutes long. He said, ‘Fuck you’, and it was the biggest hit in the world.” For some artists, drugs seem to keep them on that exalted plane.
“I always say the drug lies with the truth. That means in the beginning when you’re taking substances or drinking your first glass of red wine you might be inspired for lyrics, for melody, for a film, for an idea. For a short amount of time, a few hours, it gives you something.
“On stage Whitney was home. For those two or three hours, and she sometimes made it three hours, because she didn’t want to stop. There was just music, and the music was in her and around her. She was giving it to people, she was making people happy, but she was not being given a lot by the people around her.”
Dolezal “is sure that this movie is not hurting Whitney. The audience goes out, and they know more than what they came in with. My biggest rule was always that we must tell the truth, whether it’s about her drug taking or her relationships. When the people go out [after seeing the film], they must still love Whitney Houston. We are not destroying a legend.”