London Jazz Film Review: Whitney: Can I Be Me dir. Nick Broomfield
Whitney: Can I Be Me, 105mins The Bertha Dochouse, showing from 16th June. Film Review by Sorana Santos (as featured in London Jazz, 19th June 2017)
While at first glance Nick Broomfield’s latest documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, appears to fulfil an obvious brief - outlining the swift rise and tragic fall of songstress, Whitney Houston – a collage of rare behind-the-scenes footage and interviews form a palette of suggestions painting a more complex scenario than the public had insight into.
Issues of race, religion, sexuality, infidelity, and, of course, Houston’s well-documented addiction, sat alongside difficult industry, financial, and familial dynamics, making for a kaleidoscope of blurred boundaries which Houston struggled to reconcile within herself.
‘America’s Princess’ - a title coined in a move by industry moguls who hid Houston’s modest beginnings and Gospel roots in Newark’s ‘hood in order to market her to a white audience (a move that would soon alienate her from her roots) – had in fact already begun using drugs recreationally before signing to Arista in her teens, and despite Houston eventually signing one of the biggest record deals of all time, the industry did little in encouraging her to seek help, even when called to do so.
While Houston owed much of her extraordinary career and vocal capabilities to the support of her father and vocalist mother, Ciccy Houston, (former backing singer for, Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley), who taught her how to sing, overall familial ties were both enmeshed and fraught as Houston sought to provide for a family that not only worked for her, but also disapproved of both Brown and her close friendship with potential love-interest, Robyn Crawford.
Moments captured backstage on her final world tour in 1999 show the touching, playful, and supportive aspects of her turbulent drug and alcohol-fuelled relationship with Bobby Brown, whose numerous on-tour infidelities were wilfully ignored by Houston due to her faith; Broomfield’s placement of Brown’s performances alongside Houston’s also adds an unintentional yet dark comedic aspect to the film.
With these and many other blurred boundaries co-existing with one another, Broomfield subtly impresses upon you a fuller picture of what contributed to Houston’s death, while simultaneously reflecting on the complexities inherent in human relationships.