Nick Broomfield’s Whitney Houston documentary is a portrait of a pop star whose musical artistry had the power to heal. What she couldn’t heal was her divided soul.
“Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me’” is Nick Broomfield’s documentary about the life and death of Whitney Houston, and it’s the rare Nick Broomfield movie in which the filmmaker isn’t center stage. He co-directed it with Rudi Dolezal, and there isn’t a single scene in which Broomfield, with his puckish, dogged delight in stalking interview subjects, invades a room tailed by a crew member holding a boom mike, thrusting himself into the face of Bobby Brown or Clive Davis or Whitney Houston’s relatives or the maid who cleaned her hotel room the night she died. I’m a fan of Broomfield’s conspiracy-theory music docs (“Biggie & Tupac,” “Kurt & Courtney”), but “Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’” has no conspiracies to uncover. It just has a story to tell, and it does that incredibly compellingly.
“Can I Be Me” gets us to know Whitney Houston, to feel her pain and grace and dizzying spiritual rifts, in a way we haven’t before. A lot of the familiar tropes of her life — her “street” background, her fatal attraction to Bobby Brown — get filled in, and the result is that the movie puts the pieces of her artistry, and tragedy, together. She had a voice that did what only the greatest voices can — lift you up and heal you. Her career smashed through glass ceilings that no one knew were there. Yet she couldn’t heal herself, and her life culminates in single devastating reality: An artist-celebrity-addict who was as glorious, and hellbent, as Whitney Houston is a person who on some level chose to die.
There’s a moment in the film that speaks volumes, and it hinges on a little-known fact so charged with psychodramatic revelation that it’s like something out of a thriller. We see footage from the Soul Train Music Awards in 1989, after Houston had made two overpowering albums: “Whitney Houston” (1985), that treasure chest of soaring pop that sold 25 million copies worldwide, and its follow-up, “Whitney” (1987), which featured such cathartic tracks as “So Emotional” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” The crossover dimension of her success — i.e., the fact that a whole lot of white people, along with black people, adored her music — needed no defense.
Yet at the Soul Train Music Awards, she was booed. For having “sold out.” Since the history of African-American culture is teeming with the celebration of crossover artists (even mellow ones like Nat King Cole), who change the game for everyone, the notion that Whitney Houston was some sort of kowtowing, racially backward pariah because she sang transcendent pop music is beyond unjust. It counts as an early assertion of identity politics taken to the level of insanity.
Houston, though, was shaken to the core by it. She grew up in the hardscrabble hood of Newark, New Jersey, yet now she was being told: You’re not black enough. And here’s the twist that’s nearly Shakespearean: It was on that very night that she met Bobby Brown, the former teen pop idol who had reinvented himself as the prancing, grimacing nasty boy of MTV funk. Remember the old Katharine Hepburn line about Astaire and Rogers — “He gives her class. She gives him sex?” With Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, she gave him class (and a whole lot of other things), and he gave her street cred just when she thought she needed it. We see a lot of home video of the two of them, snuggling and arguing, playing games in which — tellingly — they pretend to be Ike and Tina Turner, or Whitney does her impersonation of Juliette Lewis in “Natural Born Killers” (“Bad! Bad Bad!”) just at the moment when Woody Harrelson is going off the deep end of evil.
As “Can I Be Me” reveals, the girl from crumbling, riot-strewn Newark fell seriously in love with the B-boy from inner-city Boston. She had played the part of a middle-class princess, and played it so well that she became it. But off-camera, the story was more complicated. “Can I Be Me” goes deep into Houston’s relationship with her most intimate friend and associate, Robyn Crawford, who was by her side on every tour. Broomfield establishes that they were lovers, but the bisexual Houston was driven to conceal the relationship from the world — especially from her mother, Cissy Houston, an old-school puritan who wouldn’t hear of it. After Houston became involved with Brown, she maintained both partnerships (the movie is ambiguous about whether her sexual relationship with Crawford continued). But Brown and Crawford despised each other. And that, of course, was the outward manifestation of how Houston’s inner contradictions were tearing her apart.
The film’s title, “Can I Be Me,” refers to something that Whitney said in the early Clive Davis years that became a famous line among her inner circle. It meant: Could she make the music she wanted to make? Could she be the artist she wanted to be? But in “Can I Be Me,” the line comes to mean: Could she express all the human being — the princess and the ghetto sister, the pop and the R&B star, the lover of women and men — she really was? Before she could even ask the question, she had already told herself, “No.”
Broomfield interviews many of the people close to Houston — her siblings, who admit to doing drugs with her when she was a child; the musicians, make-up artists, and publicists she worked with — and he uses never-before-seen footage from an uncompleted documentary about Houston that Rudi Dolezal directed (hence his co-directing credit), shot during her 1999 tour: the last successful moment she enjoyed on the world stage. The live performances are shattering, not just because Houston sang with a fusion of beauty and power unparalleled in her time but because on a song like “I Will Always Love You,” she drove herself, each night, to push the song’s emotions to the wall, wringing herself out in the process. You can see it; there isn’t a note that’s phoned in. But she was also on drugs, which became, after that tour, her new muse.
“Can I Be Me” doesn’t have the flowing sense of revelation created by a documentary masterpiece like “Amy.” That movie was almost novelistic in its charting of Amy Winehouse’s downward spiral. Winehouse had a fast and furious descent, yet because we’d lived with her artistry (which was also healing) for just a handful of years, everything in the movie felt new. “Can I Be Me” has to compete in our imaginations with everything from 30 years of music videos to interviews with Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters to “Being Bobby Brown,” the 2005 Bravo reality series that already looked like a rehearsal for Whitney Houston’s implosion. (That, to be honest, was one of its principal commercial hooks.) Yet the movie has a haunting effect. It makes you want to reach right into the screen and tell Whitney Houston to draw herself back from the abyss, to find the thing she gave to so many others: the greatest love of all.