London-born documentarian Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me is a more conventional and moving work than his previous Kurt & Courtney or Biggie & Tupac. The anger is less about race and politics and more simply to do with loss and grief.
We open, of course, with details about the death of Whitney Houston on February 11 2012 at age 48, and then move on to long-unseen footage of her during a concert in Frankfurt in 1999 during a world tour that obviously took its toll, as she’s seen struggling with the huge, soaring sections of I Will Always Love You. Her band and friends talk to Broomfield’s camera about their memories of her during that tour, with her musical director and drummer Michael Baker saying she was “like a bodybuilder” and backing vocalist Sharlotte Gibson exclaiming that she was “made by God”. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum (who seems to be the one that mentions this one’s subtitle) is tougher though, and ruefully notes what we can plainly see: “She wasn’t taking care of herself.”
Cutting back in traditional style to Whitney’s youth in Newark, New Jersey, Broomfield offers details about her home life, her fairly strict Mom Cissy (also a singer), her religious upbringing and how the family moved to East Orange after the NJ riots, and there’s a sweet bit that turns quietly sharp where her brothers, Michael and Gary, visit the old house and recall that they were the first black family in the neighbourhood.
Whitney is shown belting out a tune at the New Hope Baptist Church in 1975, already using that amazing voice at 12 years old, and her friends are heard and sometimes seen as they talk about the old days, although Toni Gregory and Ellin Lavar prove less important here than Robyn Crawford, who seemingly didn’t want to be too actively involved with this doco.
Broomfield then gets into some thornier areas as several Arista Records bods are interviewed. Kenneth Reynolds, Tony Anderson and Doug Daniel state that there was a deliberate attempt to make Whitney palatable to a white audience in order to make major money, but this isn’t quite as savage as the discussions of race in Biggie And Tupac. Our subject is also seen onstage at the MTV Awards crooning Saving All My Love For You at the peak of her early popularity and, a few years later, being booed at a Soul Train Awards show.
Then Bobby Brown is introduced performing his hit My Prerogative. He and Whitney were married for years and supposedly happy, but a home movie where they pretend to be Ike and Tina Turner is disturbing, and their continual insistence that they want to love and protect their daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown is also awfully sad, as she, of course, died in 2015 at only 22.
What might prove most contentious here, perhaps more so than the details of her drug abuse and even with the participation of Cissy and many of Whitney’s closest confidantes, is when Broomfield tackles the topic of her often-discussed sexuality: what exactly was the nature of her relationship with Robyn – and why did Bobby apparently so despise her? Did their battles, and Robyn’s eventual surrender and departure, result in Whitney’s final downward spiral?
The director’s not quite willing to go too far with this, however, preferring instead to keep away from the sort of controversy that surrounds much of his output. There are glimmers of the old Broomfield in there (if not quite the confronting style later appropriated by the likes of Michael Moore and Louis Theroux), but on the whole this is surprisingly cautious and sad, whether or not you particularly like, or even remember, the dear departed central subject.
Rated M. Whitney: Can I Be Me is in cinemas now