Whitney: Can I Be Me is one of those documentaries about an individual where I wasn’t particular enamoured with their output, but I was fascinated with how their rise and fall played out.
There’s no doubt that Whitney Houston had one of the most incredible voices you’ve ever heard, best shown off with her cover version of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You, which went to No.1 in a zillion countries and has sold over 4.5m copies to date in the US alone, making it the second only to Elton John’s 1997 Princess Diana tribute. The song was also the main theme for her 1992 hit movie, The Bodyguard, opposite Kevin Costner. It was far from a great film, but one that women loved the world over, and an acting success she failed to realise capitalise upon.
This documentary uses Whitney’s 1999 tour as a jumping off point, which was her last and most successful ever, but a year which also marks a pivotal point in her life. She was at the top of her game and unassailable, but what goes up can also comes down especially, as we all do from time to time, when we make bad life choices. After falling into a drugs habit, the use of cocaine led to her passing away by accidentally drowning in the bath at the age of just 48, in 2012. This tragedy was compounded when, just three years later, her 22-year-old daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died in similar circumstances.
From those managing her career, they wanted her to be the ‘Princess’ and, all throughout her career, she was always being told how to be so they could create this entity who every woman would want to be, hence her asking, “Can I Be Me?”
With chat from family members, tour singers and scores of people she worked with in her career, the documentary then goes back to her beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, singing in church at the age of 12, and heads forward from there including her first TV performance in 1983, at the age of 19, and making her career her own, with coming from a powerful vocal background where her mother was gospel singer Cissy Houston, and her cousin was Dionne Warwick.
There was backlash along the way, however, when a lot of the black audience felt her pop music was a bit too ‘white’, and thought she had sold out. I remember her career flourishing as it went on, as I went from school into University, and while I wasn’t a fan at the time, I never saw it as a black woman singing white music, I just remember – like a lot of popular artists at the time from any background, when you’re listening to the radio and charts a lot – as hearing the same songs being played again and again and again all day long.
A similar thing happens today. It’s called Smooth Radio… and Heart Radio.
Back to this documentary, though, and it also includes a stack of archive footage and audio which shows the downside of fame, plus media speculations about her sexuality at a time when such things weren’t talked about publicly like they are today, there’s faltering friendships, jealousy… but then you knew this wasn’t going to be a ‘happy happy’ film. In addition, I listened to I Will Always Love You again, after watching this, and it comes across a hell of a lot different, and echoing in tragedy, now we’re on the other side of everything.
Bobby Brown – while he was no saint – is portrayed as the villain of the piece, as he exerts an increasing influence over her life, but then what can you do when you’re in love? However, it does feel at times like we’re being expect to ‘boo’ and ‘hiss’ at him when he appears onscreen. That said, it’s never been proved whether it was him who introduced her to the drugs which eventually killed her.
Looking back on everything we now know, it also shows a controlling mother as Whitney brings Bobbi on stage and expects her to dance and sing as if she’s some sort of performing seal, while Bobbi appears partially reluctant, whilst also being like any young child under 10 – shy.
For Whitney’s parents, it’s a mixture of what happens when you push someone into fame, but then things spiral outside your control. I’m not a parent, but as the son of two parents, I can see how, once you make your way in the world, they’re not going to have any real control about the actions you take on your own.
The film is presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio, which is the best way to present a documentary with archive footage, since a lot of it will have been originally shot in 4:3, so is slightly zoomed in. Don’t expect pristine quality on the Blu-ray or DVD given the varying sources, but I think anyone sensible buying this will understand that.
In addition, one thing I’ve always wondered is that in the fame game, it must be weird to have so many people screaming in adoration at a concert, whether you’re Whitney Houston, David Bowie, Pink Floyd or anyone major, and then to come backstage and get back to reality and the washing up and everything else.
Overall, Whitney: Can I Be Me comes across as essential viewing and certainly a damn sight more worth of your time than Amy, Asif Kapadia’s flimsy and one-sided documentary about Amy Winehouse, which garnered unwarranted praise.
Note: This review is just for the film only, but the Blu-ray and DVD also contain the theatrical trailer and a Q&A with director/producer Nick Broomfield at Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Running time: 101 minutes
Studio: Dogwoof Pictures
Format: 1.78:1 (16:9)
Released: September 4th 2017
Directors: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
Producers: Nick Broomfield and Marc Hoeferlin
Screenplay: Nick Broomfield
Music: Nick Laird-Clowes
Herself: Whitney Houston (archive footage)
Herself: Bobbi Kristina Brown (archive footage)
Himself: Bobby Brown (archive footage)
Herself: Robyn Crawford (archive footage)
Himself: John Russell Houston Jr (archive footage)
Herself: Cissy Houston
Himself: David Roberts
Himself: Johnny Carson (archive footage) (uncredited)
Himself: Serge Gainsbourg (archive footage) (uncredited)
Himself: Mike Tyson (archive footage) (uncredited)
Herself: Oprah Winfrey (archive footage) (uncredited)
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.