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Whitney: Can I Be Me
USA 2017
Directed by Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal
Running time 90 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: Four years after her death  at the age 48 in February 2012, filmmaker Nick Broomfield goes in search of the forces that made and then destroyed Whitney Houston.

Unfortunately it’s a familiar story: a prodigious talent devoured by the insatiable music industry and destroyed by the social and psychological isolation that comes with fame and fortune. Add a truckload of drugs and alcohol and a rapacious family and retinue of hangers-on and Whitney joins Elvis, Michael and Amy as tragic exemplars of innocence exploited and hope betrayed.

Ironically, although Houston’s name is well-known, other than her spine-tingling version of Dolly Parton's ‘I Will Always Love You’ that was taken from the 1992 hit film, The Bodyguard, her musical talent is probably less so (at least it was to me). This is largely because under the guidance of her record label her records and image were packaged as soft rock, more Barbra than Aretha and steeped in the kitschy production values favoured in the '80s and '90s.  To director Nick Broomfield’s credit, however, he makes Houston’s story a moving poignant one even if it feels at times a tad too neatly packaged as an archetypal fallen star tragedy (there are many similarities with Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary, Amy).

All the familiar elements are here – the gospel roots in her New Jersey church in the late 1960s under the tutelage of her controlling mother, Emily “Cissy” Houston;  her discovery by Clive Davis of Arista Records, who carefully groomed her to appeal to a mainstream white audience, a strategy that won her a boatload of Grammys and close to 200 million album sales but, ultimately, rejection by black audiences.  With the superstar lifestyle came spiralling drug use; the scandal of a lesbian relationship with her personal assistant and longtime friend, Robyn Crawford; there was a destructive marriage to rapper Bobby Brown in 1992 topped with  estrangement from her family who worked behind the scenes to keep her isolated from those who genuinely cared about her, like Ms. Crawford (Houston’s beloved father sued her for $100 million from his deathbed!)  It is an achingly sad story, made all the sadder because Houston comes across as a generous, trusting and loving soul too easily led astray.

Whilst Houston’s story is a tragic one (but no doubt will not be the last) Broomfield’s film does what a good music documentary should do and pique interest in its subject's work. While the film largely follows a chronological format it keeps returning to its centerpiece, footage shot by German film-maker Rudi Dolezal who is here credited as a co-director for a shelved documentary about the singer’s 1999 European tour, her last tour at the top of her form. We get both fly-on-the-wall backstage insights into Houston, Brown and Crawford’s relationship just at the time it was disintegrating and footage of Houston in performance where freed of MOR studio production we hear her voice in all its glory. This in itself serves as a eloquent testament to the waste of it all.

Broomfield is largely dependent on archival footage and there is a noticeable lack of up-to-date input from Brown, Cissy Houston and, especially wanting, Crawford.  This hopefully will be remedied by an upcoming documentary on Houston by British director Kevin Macdonald and the production team behind Amy.  In the meantime thanks to this film. I, for one, will be seeking out the voice of an artist whose name alone I previously only knew.

 

 

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