KVIFF 2017 Review: Tabloid-esque ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ Goes Too Far
British filmmaker Nick Broomfield has made some terrific documentaries over a career that spans more than forty years, from a pair of films about murderer Aileen Wuornos (which greatly influenced Patty Jenkins’ Monster) to his recent take on an L.A. serial killer in Tales of the Grim Sleeper.
His movies about celebrated figures in the music world, however, have not been as highly regarded. In Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac, the filmmaker wildly speculates about some infamous deaths without much credible data to back him up.
While the death of singer Whitney Houston is no mystery, it’s no less tragic. And unfortunately, while Broomfield does less speculating this time around, his look into her life and career suffers from an unfortunately invasive tabloid streak.
At least half of Whitney: Can I Be Me - particularly early on - is a sufficient overview of the pop diva’s incredible history and rise to fame. For someone who knew little of Houston’s backstory, it’s enlightening stuff.
But the other half - which recounts her personal affairs (including a widely-speculated romantic relationship with friend Robyn Crawford) and a long history of drug and alcohol use - while essential to this story, feels too invasive.
There’s no doubt that Whitney Houston has a long history of drug abuse that ultimately led to her death. But there is, I think, a more sensitive way to present this information.
When Houston’s brothers speak about a history of casual drug use shared with their sister outside their childhood home, it’s a stark and effective. When the film re-uses clips from interviews with Houston on Oprah or Barbara Walters where the singer begrudgingly admits to a problem, it feels a little blunt.
But in the film’s most unfortunate use of pre-existing material, Broomfield lingers over grainy photos published in a National Enquirer-like tabloid of Houston’s home, presumably taken shortly after her death.
They are too difficult to make out, but a blurred object on a bathroom counter is circled in red and labelled “crack pipe.” We might as well be looking at an alleged picture of Bigfoot.
Details of Houston’s personal life and relationships feel unstable, if only because Broomfield failed to obtain interviews with those closest to her: friend and alleged lover Crawford, husband Bobby Brown, and mother Cissy Houston, a singer and perhaps the biggest influence in Whitney’s life and career.
At its best, Can I Be Me recounts Houston’s incredible rise to fame in the 1980s under producer Clive Davis, who turned an incredible teenage talent into a studio popstar with a string of #1 hits. But Houston only later had the pull to be able to sing what she wanted to sing (hence the title) and her career took a devastating turn at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, where she was booed for having “sold out.”
Unfortunately, we hear precious little of Whitney’s music during the course of the film (likely due to rights issues). What we do get is footage of a 1999 European tour (one of the singer’s last) so extensively utilized that Rudi Dolezal, who filmed it for an abandoned documentary, is given co-director credit here.
While the film may not have a wealth of interview subjects who offer real insight, there’s at least one: David Roberts, the Welsh bodyguard who stood next to Houston for a decade and served as the inspiration for the Kevin Costner movie The Bodyguard.
“There are only two differences between real life and that film,” he tells the camera, “I never took a bullet for her, and I never slept with her. But that wouldn’t have made for a very exciting two hours.”
In one of the movie’s most insightful moments, Roberts reveals how he penned a letter of warning detailing how the singer’s drug use was threatening her life and career, and sent it to her family and managers. He was dismissed soon after.
Like the similarly-themed documentary Amy, which detailed Amy Winehouse’s spectacular rise and fall, there’s a lesson to be learned here, and one that shouldn’t be glossed over. But where that film created an incredibly intimate portrait of Winehouse through the use of behind-the-scenes footage, Whitney: Can I Be Me feels far too distanced from its subject.
Ironically, Can I Be Me is certainly not how she would have wanted to be remembered.