Full disclosure: I wasn’t hugely enthralled by Whitney: “Can I Be Me”, the critically acclaimed documentary by Nick Broomfield, which received rave reviews, and I really, really wanted to love being a huge Whitney fan. Although it was well produced and indeed did show a more personal side to the superstar than we’d previously seen, I felt it was sombre and focused so acutely on her demons that it neglected to expose the full spectrum of who she was beyond her life challenges. The documentary also suffered from not having the full cooperation of the Houston estate, so had to rely on a lot of information from people who worked for her but didn’t necessarily know her intimately. I didn’t walk away feeling like I knew her any better than before watching.
When I initially heard that the Houston family had given director Kevin Macdonald the go ahead to do his own version of Whitney’s life story, I assumed that it would be more of the same thing, and in fact a much more sanitised portrayal of her life, but how wrong I was.
Simply titled Whitney, the documentary paints the picture of an African American family whose talented and precocious youngest offspring with a phenomenal voice, propelled their lives into a surreal existence of fame, wealth and excess, which would ultimately destroy their once tight-knit unit. It’s a classic cautionary tale that would make for a fascinating Sunday afternoon Channel 5 film viewing, if it wasn’t true.
Even if you’re a modest Whitney fan you are likely to know the story of her rise to fame: a young black girl from Newark, New Jersey begins her career as a backup singer and model before being discovered by music mogul Clive Davis. Instinctively knowing he had struck gold, Davis began meticulously plotting her career ascension, positioning a tender aged Whitney as a worldly, sophisticated songbird whose poise and elegant demeanour would ingratiate her with the white record buying public and make her a global superstar. The plan worked. Whitney’s career accomplishments are nothing to scoff at: over 200 million album sales worldwide, 7 consecutive US number ones, 7 Grammy awards and a record breaking film and soundtrack, courtesy of 1992’s drama/thriller, The Bodyguard.
The documentary firmly places us backstage and what initially struck me was the stark contrast between her public life and the ‘round the way’ Jersey girl she was in front of her family. Before show time Whitney could be seen clowning around with her brothers, her siblings’ New Jersey accents and street wear attire seemingly at odds with the Whitney we thought we knew in the 80s.
Fast- forward to the next scene, Whitney would be seen as a guest on various chat shows, looking and sounding the very epitome of the wholesome, respectable, upwardly mobile black woman, a popular culture trope that was beginning to materialise during The Cosby Show Era, which strove to show black people in an overwhelming positive light.
Watching these poignant scenes made me think of all the code switching she must’ve felt duty bound to adhere to and how exhausting it must’ve been. When she was seen letting her guard down among those she trusted it provide moments of cinematic gold. “Paula Abdul ain’t shit”, she indignantly states to her mother Cissy while curled up on a sofa backstage, lamenting the music industry’s penchant for promoting gimmicky music. “The girl sings off key. On the record.” Cissy cracks up, Whitney cracks up, we, the audience in the packed cinema couldn’t help but also crack up. Mama Cissy even throws shade at Queen Janet, ‘Miss Jackson if you’re nasty’ herself. Whitney, sensing that maybe her mum had gone too far with that one, lets out a dramatic ‘Oooh’, before looking mischievously into the camera, suggesting that maybe it would be best to leave that particular comment on the cutting room floor.
It doesn’t take you long to realise that Whitney had a great sense of humour. There were so many clips of her cracking jokes, hysterically laughing, just being a regular young woman who just happened to be one of the biggest stars in the world. Even when the documentary inevitably plunged into the darkness we knew was coming, Whitney’s infectious cackle was never too far behind. And ultimately that’s how this Kevin MacDonald’s documentary will be remembered – as a film that humanises her.
Producer Lisa Erspamer first got the idea to make a documentary about Whitney Houston, when she worked with the singer as a co-executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, which Whitney famously appeared on in 2009. “At that time it was jarring to see how people’s opinions of Whitney had changed because of her addiction,” says Lisa. “It’s very easy to judge someone when it looks like they’re throwing away their God-given talent, and that’s what a lot of people said about Whitney.”
Lisa wanted to make a documentary that would provide a deeper understanding of the woman behind the tarnished public image, explore Houston’s meteoric rise and the reasons behind her very public fall from grace.
Like all of us, Whitney was more than one thing. The documentary presents a multi-dimensional portrayal of who she was as a woman, mother, daughter, wife and international superstar. We get to see her in full creative mode: vocally coaching her backing singers, working alongside the dancers while rehearsing for a tour. It’s a role we don’t necessarily associate with Whitney. She was seen primarily as a vocal phenomenon before freefalling into tabloid fodder. I think we often forget that she also had some input in the trajectory of her career, and during the earlier years she was somewhat invested in her creative choices.
Another thing that struck me was her apparent warmth, sensitivity and the love she had for her family. There are personal accounts from a whole host of family members and friends including her mum, brothers, Bobby Brown himself, family friends and work associates. A recurring theme that popped up was Whitney’s generosity both financially and emotionally, which would often be to her detriment.
The blossoming relationship between Bobby and Whitney was portrayed with sensitivity. We’re first shown video footage from the Soul Train Awards where they officially met, and where Whitney was booed by the audience for what they proclaimed was her selling out, neglecting her Gospel/R&B lineage in favour of pop music which appeals to white audiences. It was an event that was said to affect her greatly. This apparent tension between wanting to affirm her blackness and feeling obligated to present a falsified version of herself to the wider general public, provided the perfect storm which would lead her into the arms of a man who personified unapologetic blackness: Bobby Brown. As the film progresses, the cracks start to appear. But it’s a narrative we’re all familiar with now: Bobby was incredibly jealous and insecure about Whitney’s success, their relationship was highly dysfunctional, and the drug and alcohol abuse was the added fuel that would cause their relationship to combust.
One thing that wasn’t explored in great detail was Whitney’s relationship with her childhood friend and rumoured lover, Robyn Crawford. A central focus of the Can I Be Me documentary premised that Whitney could never find happiness because she was in love with Robyn and conflicted by her sexuality, bearing in mind that same sex relationships were still quite taboo in society during the 80s, not to mention Whitney came from a staunch Black Baptist church background. With the Houston family at the helm of this project, and Cissy’s refusal to even entertain the thought that her daughter might have been gay, one does wonder if that’s why the Whitney and Robyn narrative wasn’t given the attention I feel it warranted.
That said, I must give the family full credit for chronicling her descent into drug addiction in all its ugliness. It was so eerie watching Whitney transform from a bright, beautiful, elegant woman with an otherworldly voice (seeing her sing the national anthem on the big screen will give you chills) to a skeletal, erratic, barely functioning drug addict will break your heart. From this point of the documentary till the end credits, the tears were continually flowing. The interviewees onscreen could barely stop crying, the woman sat next to me was continuously wiping her eyes, and I too, fought hard to hold back the tears. The scenes of a young, helpless looking Bobbi Christina will finish you. It’s so unbelievably sad, and the saddest thing of all is we all knew it would only get worse as the years progressed.
By the end of the film, I definitely felt like I knew more about Whitney although I still can’t say I can put my finger on exactly what her demons were. Was it the suppressed sexuality? The horrific alleged sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her relative, singer Dee Dee Warwick? The frustration of not being able to be herself at the behest of her record label? Or was she simply a victim of circumstance, tragically corralled into the sordid world of elicit drugs at the tender age of 16 by people who should’ve been looking out for her? Who knows.
What I will say is Whitney the documentary is a love letter to Whitney Houston fans; it’s the film we needed to see to celebrate her talent, honour her legacy and allow her to rest in the peace that eluded her throughout her life. It’s out on July 6th in the UK, and you should definitely go and see it.
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