Whitney: Can I Be Me?

WHITNEY: “CAN I BE ME”, US. Footage of Whitney Houston, relatives, friends, musicians, bodyguard. Directed by Nick Broomfield, Rudy Dolezal. 105 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).

In the 1980s and 1990s, Whitney Houston was one of the most celebrated singers in the world. By 2012 she had experienced lack of success, criticism, marriage and divorce, the birth of her daughter, and the ruining of her voice. She committed suicide – although, a friend at the beginning of this documentary states that she died of a broken heart.

Nick Broomfield, British director, has been making documentaries for over 40 years, many award-winning documentaries. He has ventured into all kinds of fields including American music with his documentary about Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, Biggie and Tupac, as well as a documentary Kurt and Courtney, about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.

Fortunately for a comprehensive look at Whitney Houston, her life and career, a lot of film and television footage was available and is used to present Whitney Huston as a character in her own life, a focus on her mother and father, especially her gospel singing mother, Cissy Houston, interviews with her brothers, a close friend Robin, with a variety of the musicians who backed her up, various entrepreneurs who guided her career, her husband Bobby Brown, with glimpses of her daughter as a child on stage with her mother, and some telling comments by her sometime British bodyguard. All this material is judiciously edited to provide a narrative, Whitney Houston’s life from birth to death as well as frequent dipping into her performances in her career.

Born in 1963 in New Jersey, Whitney Houston had a religious upbringing, singing with her mother in church, a precocious talent which her mother encouraged. However, given the times and the careers of her brothers, she was introduced to drugs at an early age, using a range of drugs until she became dependent on them and, in fact, an addict. This is a theme throughout the film, with many commentators, some wondering whether there could have been an intervention, the revelation that she went into rehabilitation but lapsed.

One of the difficulties for Whitney Huston was her success with white American audiences. In the 90s, she was booed by the black audience condemning her for being “too white”. At first, this did not worry her; she had hit records, many awards, interviews and performances on television. The television interviews with significant television hosts including Johnny Carson, Katie Couric, Barbara Walters, continued through her career.

There was also talk about her sexual orientation and behaviour, her close relationship with Robin, her main friend for many years, encouraging her. Questions were raised about a lesbian relationship – and, in fact, at the end of the film, there is information about Robin living with her lesbian partner and their raising twins. An encounter with Bobby Brown, hyperactive extroverted entertainer, led to a relationship, despite his infidelities on the road, and their eventual marriage, the birth of their daughter Bobbi Christina – but, ultimately, a divorce (and the very sad information that at age 22, Bobbi Christina had drug problems and took her own life in 2015.)

For most audiences, awareness of Whitney Houston focused on the film The Bodyguard with Kevin Costner and this film provides some background to the making of the film, her singing, the success and Oscar nominations – quite a contrast to 8 years later when she was fired from singing at the Oscars because of erratic rehearsals.

Whitney Houston seem to be a very sympathetic personality and so this story of her rise and fall is very emotional and tragic. The film is another addition to the exploration of celebrity life, ambitions, dedication, the pressure of family and friends, difficulties in dealing with celebrity, erratic behaviour in relationships, drug addiction. Whitney Huston achieved a great deal – but at what cost?

Rialto                                   Released June 15th

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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