Whitney: Can I Be Me review

The world mourned on February 9 2012, at the loss of pop’s first modern diva Whitney Elizabeth Houston. Found unconscious and submerged in the bath of her room at the Beverly Hilton hotel at 3:30pm, paramedics attempted to resuscitate the Grammy award-winning singer, but their efforts proved all too little too late. She was declared dead at 3:55pm that afternoon. Los Angeles county coroners revealed that Houston’s cause of death was brought on by heart disease as a result of cocaine usage.

A deeply complicated character, was her death simply the result of what pain ultra-fame can inflict on a human being? As with everything in life, the issues are far more complex than they initially seem. For the first time, directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal have put to film an insightful look into the life of the singer.

Whitney: Can I Be Me surfaces photos, interviews, exclusive show footage and home videos of Houston, never before seen by the public. When trying to humanise a celebrity, making them relatable is hard enough as it is. The private lives of the super-rich and famous has always been a mystery, as we only see what the tabloids want us to see. However, the portrait that Broomfield and Dolezal paint for us is eloquently presented as we get to grips with the woman behind the voice.

Sticking to a standard biopic structure, the pacing of the film is pulled off tastefully and without prejudice to Houston’s demons. Though her marital rollercoaster with R ‘n’ B singer Bobby Brown had been tabloid gold for the best part of two decades, it’s the relationships with her mother Cissy Houston and best friend Robyn Crawford that prove to be the most interesting. Her mother, a former gospel singer who had had a successful career herself, looked on enviously at her daughter’s titanic success, while best friend Crawford was the last thread in keeping her sanity from crumbling. The tug of war hostility between Crawford and Brown over Houston becomes apparent without skimping on the details. It’s a significant conflict, as Crawford saw the horrendous treatment Brown had put her friend through, but was powerless to save her from the downward spiral that marriage would turn out to be.

The film also highlights the symbolised departure from African-American culture that she represented. Widely accepted as being the first modern diva of our time, her success was rooted in writing and performing pop music for a significantly white mainstream market. Seen by the black community as selling out, the animosity overflowed during the Soul Train Music Awards in 1989, where she was booed for her nomination, which ended up scarring her for the rest of her life. The pressures of her success were omnipresent – that the film never lets you forget. It’s an interesting angle that would easily have been forgotten if not for her untouchable legacy on pop culture.

Her well documented, lifelong battle with addiction is almost unbearable to watch. Having been born and brought up in the ghettos of Newark, New Jersey, drugs and alcohol were the cornerstone of growing up in the ‘70s. The message is clear that the effects of addiction are relevant in all walks of life, however what the documentary makes absolutely clear is the overwhelming presence and unescapable grasp drugs had over Houston, haunting her throughout her life.

Whitney: Can I Be Me review

Despite all her circumstances, that voice, that divine voice, will forever one of the greatest of her generation. As the film opens to footage of what would be her last world tour, it cuts to the singer mid-song. She pauses; the anticipation of what’s coming next is exhilarating, almost too much to bear. Then, that penultimate chorus of her greatest track ‘I Will Always Love You,’ washes completely over you. Every night without fail the performance of a lifetime, never to be heard again.

As the credits roll, you’re left wondering if that voice was a gift or a curse? Whichever it may be, what is certain is that she touched the lives of many millions of people around the world, leaving a legacy on pop that remains untouched. For Whitney fans, this film is a must. For the rest of us, it provides a unique insight into the world that most of us will never know but wish to understand. A sobering and poignant reflection that should not be missed.

Dir: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobbi Kristina Brown, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford, John Russell Houston Jr., Cissy Houston, David Roberts

Cinematography: Sam Mitchell

Music: Nick Laird-Clowes

Country: USA/ UK

Year: 2017

Runtime: 105mins

Whitney: Can I Be Me is out on digital, DVD and Blu-ray now.

By Hywel Davies

Cardiff based freelance music/media journalist.