Tribeca Film Review: ‘Whitney. ‘Can I Be Me”

'Whitney: "Can I Be Me"' Review:
Courtesy of RICHARD YOUNG/REX/Shutterstock

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.

Tribeca Film Review: 'Whitney. 'Can I Be Me''

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival, April 27, 2017. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production

A Showtime Networks release of a Showtime Networks, Lafayette Film Production, Passion Pictures prod. Producers: Nick Broomfield, Marc Hoerferlin. Executive producers: John Battsek, Vinnie Malhotra, Patrick Holland, Kate Townsend, Charles Finch, Shani Hinton, Ben Silverman.

Crew

Directors: Nick Broomfield, Rudi Dolezal. Screenplay: Nick Broomfield. Camera (color, widescreen): Sam Mitchell. Editor: Marc Hoerferlin.

With

Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Robyn Crawford.

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  1. Great article. Can’t wait to see the documentary as well. One thing I remember about Whitney from way back in the day. She did an interview surrounding her first album. It was on the radio and it was late at night. She was asked something about ghetto and i remember her reply “Ghetto isn’t a place, it’s a state of mind.” I didn’t put it all together then but it stayed with me. I couldn’t understand why she said it or the relevance of the question. I remember her voice but couldn’t understand the songs back then. But I guess it was all to make her the “Voice” she became back then. Who knew the inner turmoil she was going through just to become that voice.

    I also remember her final tour and just thinking it must be heartbreaking to open your mouth to sing and that voice was gone. I can’t imagine what she went through every night wondering if you would be able to sing.

    Again, can’t wait for the documentary.

  2. Whitney Fan says:

    Great article. Just a couple notes as a Whitney Fan. The Soul Train Awards incident is not a little-known fact. Any black person of a certain age can speak eloquently and knowledgeably about it. It’s been talked about on radio stations and talk shows with predominantly black audiences. There is a sort of unspoken shame among the black community about how some of us turned our back on Whitney only to “let her back in” and claim and celebrate her a decade later. In any case, I am glad the film makes the connection between that incident and her meeting Bobby Brown.

    Whitney also did not really grow up in the projects. Her family lived in Newark when she was really young, but after the Newark riots, her parents moved the family East Orange, NJ. She grew up in the burbs with a pool in the back yard. It’s a stretch to say she grew up in the ragtag disparity of the streets. It’s an image she perpetuated as she tried to win back the favor of the black community. She was certainly surrounded by black people all her childhood, so while she might not have really been a “thug,” she was definitely down. She was rooted in black American culture.

    Can’t wait to see this documentary.

  3. Christopher says:

    Gleiberman is clearly a Houston fan, which is fine, but he talks about her breaking through glass ceilings and her cross-over appeal to white record buyers as if it hadn’t been done on a large scale before. Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross (to name only two divas) appealed just as much to whites as to blacks and in terms of glass ceilings, Barbra Streisand began doing that when she was barely out of her teens–two decades before Houston arrived on the scene.

    • scastagnoli1 says:

      While not taking away from any of the accomplishments achieved by the artists you referenced, Houston was a female star on a level not seen previously. If one considers the modest number of albums she recorded compared to other artists who’ve piled up impressive records sales, the average sales per record are massive.

      She had numerous other markers that clearly place her on a level not reached by any other female singer. She was the first female to have an album debut at #1. Houston was the first ever to reach one million sales of an album in one week. Her seven consecutive #1 singles surpassed The Beatles and Bee Gees and hasn’t been broken to this day. She performed to large audiences in every part of the world. A third concert performance recored in S. Africa was attended by over 100,000 people. She played big venues in S. America, toured in the Far East and was hugely popular in Europe.

      Hopefully, with the anticipated release of Kevin Macdonald’s “official” doc later this year, the focus will be placed much more on her incredible gift rather than the darkest aspects of her life.

      • Dennis says:

        No female artist before her had the money or promotion, poured into her career, that Arista Record’s (Clive Davis) put into Houston’s career. Her debut album cost almost 1/2 a million dollars, unheard of, at the time. Donna Summer was pop music’s first female mega star selling million or record world wide. Pushing the boundaries by crossing into multiple genres. Mary j Blige and Lenny Kravitz call her the game changer. She sold 20 million plus albums, had 9 gold and 2 platinum singles, in the last half of the 70’s with Casablanca Records in the US. Her Casablanca catalog is under certified by the RIAA, because they didn’t start multi-platinum certifications until 1984. Donna sued Casablanca in January 1980, and signed with Geffen shortly after. Tina’s Turner’s comeback started in 84 and continued through 85. It preceded Houston’s debut in February 85, Houston sold 15 million albums and had I gold single in the 80’s.

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