Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ review: There’s no spine-tingling revelations but it’s still a fascinating insight into the ill-effects of divine talent, controlling ambitions and manufactured perceptions 

Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ review by Sacha Hall at the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.

 It’s the archetypal classic Hollywood story: A girl from the hood with the voice of an angel finds herself on a meteoric journey from humble gospel singer to one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. Along the way, she struggles to overcome the weight of ambitious and controlling family members, music executives, world-wide fame and substance addiction.

And yet, this modern-day story has an interesting addition: the tragic failure to find a workable balance between the two most important people in her life – her closest friend, confidante and one-time alleged lover Robyn Crawford and her recording artist husband Bobby Brown.

Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ director Nick Broomfield explores these elements with a retelling that is subtle of hand and devoid of the customary brash, in-your-face style one usually expects from the filmmaker. There are no explosive revelations, no interviews with key players like Cissy Houston, Crawford or Brown nor is there an emphasis on one singular tragic moment that has already been well-documented and mediated.  Rather, Broomfield gives Whitney the one thing she always wanted in life… the chance to just be and show… herself.

Through talking head interviews with many of the other people who closely surrounded Houston – her entourage (including make-up artists, security, band members and publicists) and siblings – and using archival and never-before-seen footage of Houston taken by co-director Rudi Dolezal during her last successful My Love is Your Love tour in 1999, Broomfield weaves Houston’s story from one climactic downfall to the next.

Lovingly known as Nippy to friends and family, Houston’s story begins at her end; an accidental drowning in her hotel suite at the famed Beverly Hilton whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol.  It then quickly cuts to footage of Houston during her last successful tour in 1999 as she emotionally belts out her hit I Will Always Love You . This dichotic centrepoint becomes the central thread through which this story is told. Every time you see a momentous or happy moment, you can’t help but be saddened by the underlying tragedy just under the surface.

From her early life as a teenage gospel singer under the guidance of her mother Cissy to her discovery and moulding by Clive Davis into an artist relatable to white America but ‘not black enough…R&B enough’ for black America (Houston was booed at the Soul Train awards in 1993 which hurt and affected her deeply), audiences see the shy, insecure and self-doubting artist who quickly became greater than herself. ‘She changed history for black women’ one friend states ‘and she paid a price for it’.

Following her second album, that price became inescapable when media speculation turned to her private life and she was forced to conceal her relationship with childhood best friend come Creative Director Robyn Crawford.  The film alludes to a more intimate relationship with Houston’s most trusted confidant and fiercest protector but neither the family nor Crawford herself has ever publicly confirmed a romantic attachment.  In fact, Crawford has never spoken publically about her personal relationship with Houston whilst Houston’s family have made a concerted effort to diminish Crawford’s place in the late singer’s life.

Crawford’s close relationship with Houston was also a major bone of contention with her husband Bobby Brown.  The two hated each other despite Houston maintaining close relationships with them both and they constantly battled over her affections and attentions. By 1999, Crawford had had enough and subsequently resigned due to irreconcilable differences.

The documentary posits that Crawford’s departure during Houston’s last successful tour was a major loss to the artist and a contributing factor in her tragic downfall. With her safe harbour gone, Houston was left in the care of family and associates who are presented as self-serving enablers. ‘There’s not one person out there not responsible for the death of that beautiful woman’ her former bodyguard David Roberts cries (and I doubt there isn’t anyone out there who would disagree). But hindsight is always 20/20.

Houston lovers will thoroughly enjoy this film thanks in part to Dolezal’s extensive tour footage and intimate behind the scenes clips.  My only disappointment being that there was no real spine-tingling revelations to make it as transcendent as its subject.

Whitney: ‘Can I be Me’ review by Sacha Hall, June 2017.

Whitney: ‘Can I be Me’ is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival and opens in UK cinemas on June 16th, 2017.