Whitney: Can I Be Me?

Directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal

Courtesy of Hot Docs

BY Kevin ScottPublished May 1, 2017

While watching Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal's documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me? one gets the sense that even though we may have appreciated the extraordinary talents of Whitney Houston as a singer while she was alive, we never really got to know all that much about her as a person. The film does an admirable job of laying bare all of the different unseen facets of Houston, from her humble upbringing to her struggles with superstardom and tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown to the vices and secrets that continued to weigh on her until her death.
Tracing back to formative years spent growing up in the hood of New Jersey, we learn of how Houston honed her voice singing in church and note how her mother Cissy is all-too quick to try and take credit for moulding Whitney into the unbelievable performer she became. Plucked from obscurity while still in her teens by record mogul Clive Davis, Houston's rise to the top of the charts is revealed to be a carefully engineered one that sought to whitewash her background by favouring mainstream pop songs over anything too R&B or funky. This led to her actually getting booed at the Soul Train Awards; interestingly, that would be the same night she would meet future husband Bobby Brown.
Broomfield, working with co-director Dolezal, reins in his typically confrontational style to better suit this material. He never once appears on camera brandishing his trademark boom mic, despite his voice being heard off-screen during the many interviews with Whitney's friends, family members and musicians.
Perhaps the greatest revelation in the documentary is the detailing of the lengthy romantic relationship Houston had with her long-time female assistant Robyn — one that Whitney kept hidden for obvious reasons. In a telling interview that Whitney's mother Cissy gave Oprah Winfrey in the days after Whitney's death, Cissy makes it clear that a homosexual relationship with Robyn would have definitely bothered her. But asked if she was happy when Whitney entered into a relationship with Bobby Brown, Cissy emphatically says no.
A love triangle emerges that clearly dominated much of Houston's life, with candid footage revealing the textbook co-dependent relationship Whitney had with Bobby while still keeping Robyn in the picture. There are times when it seems as if Whitney and Bobby were made for each other, as when they laugh together while roleplaying as Ike and Tina Turner. But it's impossible to ignore how much drugs clearly played a part in their union, with many sequences showing the glassy-eyed couple cavorting and carrying on at various events.
Throughout it all, we're constantly reminded of just how gifted a singer Houston truly was in her prime. There's a strong focus in particular on her last successful world tour in 1999, where we're awed by the commitment required by Houston on a nightly basis. In one scene, she leaves the stage in tears only to have to compose herself because she has to change clothes and get back out there. What was she crying about? Only Whitney really knows.
The title of the film is an apt one. Not only was it a question Houston regularly asked those in her inner circle, but it also exemplifies a woman who often felt as if she couldn't be herself. There were clearly issues with sexuality, fame, addiction and family that couldn't be resolved in her lifetime. What's even more tragic is how some of the same demons would later plague Whitney and Bobby's daughter Bobbi Kristina to the point where she too eventually succumbed to them.
Near the beginning of the film, one of Whitney's back-up singers concludes that, despite what the coroner's report says, Whitney really died of a broken heart. By the time we've sat through all of the trials and tribulations she endured, we're inclined to believe her.

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