By Sam Bleazard
More than just the title of this documentary, the phrase “Can I Be Me?” was apparently one of Whitney Houston’s most well-known catch-phrases, by those in her entourage who knew her best.
The public at large knew her voice, and what a voice, but also her meteoric fall from grace. To its credit, it’s the voice that this film opens with during some fantastic concert footage, and even 15 years into a ground-breaking career it’s still a powerful and moving thing to witness.
At the recent premiere of the documentary, film-maker Nick Broomfield revealed in a Q&A that he had the privilege of having access to almost 100 hours of intimate behind the scenes film shot during Houston’s last great tour in 1999.
With a fair amount of interview footage of Whitney herself in this film, you begin to get a picture of someone with an auspicious talent, who was initially happy to be moulded into the star system as a teenager. However in the end she is trapped into supporting large groups of people on her payroll, including the complication of having close family members as staff, and deep rooted drug problems (which she’s exposed to in her childhood) continue to re-surface in her loneliest hours.
It’s certainly a more human portrayal than you might imagine and in addition to the revealing backstage footage (you see her in tears on more than one occasion) there are also private moments goofing around with husband Bobby Brown. While that relationship ultimately comes across as damaging as you might expect, the key character witness in her complex life unfortunately didn’t make herself available to be interviewed for this film. This is a shame as her female best friend and key confidante, Robyn Crawford, who pre-dates the singers global stardom as a best-selling artist, clearly could have shed a great deal of insight into who Whitney Houston really was.
However, her shadow looms large over this film, and it’s clear that this is the relationship that provided stability and safety in her life. So much so that when she eventually departs at the end of the documented tour – with one member of the singer’s inner circle asking if she was paid off – it leaves a massive hole that can never be filled. Even a Bobby Brown quote at the end of the film acknowledges that if their relationship had been seen to be acceptable then perhaps the singer would still be alive today.
Complexity runs deep in all of the key relationships within her inner circle, her father whom she adores, is eventually an employee but disturbingly towards the end of his life goes on to demand millions of dollars from her that he feels he’s “owed”. Daughter to a highly controlling, some might say domineering, mother figure with musical ambitions of her own – Cissy Houston disapproves of her relationship with female assistant Crawford, but also of eventual husband Brown. The latter comes across in the film as someone, who is consciously or otherwise, using Houston as a vehicle to keep himself in the limelight, while in parallel seems to fundamentally damage her self-confidence and sense of self-worth as he does so. That they loved each other isn’t in question but they also perversely seem to fuel their respective addictions in what becomes an impossibly toxic mix. Whitney Houston from the mid 1990s onwards is seen as someone continually wrestling her inner demons and her eventual dependence on drug use begins to erode her ability to perform, with one key touring musician describing how they have to keep lowering the key to help her out as things begin to worsen.
With the 1999 tour as its focus all the tempestuous forces of Houston’s life are at war behind the scenes, we learn that Crawford and Brown come to blows, that her real life bodyguard David Roberts was virtually the same character as the figure Kevin Costner played in their hit movie (spawning the eternal anthem “I Will Always Love You”). At least barring the bullet he takes and the fact that they never slept together. In fact so much so, that Roberts tries everything he can do to save the singer by writing to all of her family members, strangely referred to as “The Estate”, detailing the dangerous extent of her drug addiction, on her mental and physical health and crucially her voice and performances. Roberts is relieved of his duties shortly after the letter is issued, and never works with Houston again.
Whitney seems to be a very much loved person by the people that knew her, but as is so often the case no-one seems capable of saving her. Funny and direct in interviews she confesses that it’s not success that’s the issue, it’s fame, because she believes people want her to be living the perfect life, one that she feels isn’t possible.
Her sense of self, both her racial and sexual identity, are clearly conflicted and a lot is made of her background “from the ‘hood” and the attempt to make her crossover to white audiences in the mid to late eighties. That she becomes a victim of that success, being booed at 1989’s Soul Train Awards and fighting to make different styles of music later, clearly rankled with her privately.
I only saw Whitney Houston perform live once, and I think it was on the tour featured on this film, at Wembley Arena. Even though not at the absolute peak of her powers there was no question that she was a singular talent. The moment that sticks in the mind was mid-way through the set where she informed the capacity crowd that she was going to go back to her roots and revisit some gospel songs from her church background.
It must have been hard for the singer to hear people suddenly break into conversation, chat amongst themselves and decide it was the opportune moment to go to the toilet – as it was music that clearly meant a lot to her. It highlights the struggle at the heart of the stellar career of possibly the greatest singer of her generation, she elevated so many millions through song, but was ultimately unable to elevate herself.
Whitney Can I Be Me will be on national release from June 16, to find out more visit here.