Film Whitney Houston‘ s tragic life is the subject of a documentary
A new documentary follows the tragic trajectory of pop star Whitney Houston’s life, writes Iain Shedden
Her decline was never more apparent than on the stage of Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 2010. Whitney Houston, the most successful female singer in history, struggled through the opening performance of her Australian tour. Tired, breathless and seemingly unable to name all of her band members, she was a shadow of the superstar she had been.
In Sydney a few days later the story was similar. Fans left the show disappointed, some before the end. Even allowing for the fact this was Houston’s first tour in a decade, her demeanour suggested there was more to the story than lack of match practice. Her Australian promoter, Andrew McManus, and her management protested otherwise, but that was a smokescreen. Houston was in a bad way. In less than two years, at the age of 48, she’d be dead.
There’s a great sadness associated with Houston’s death and the events leading to it. Here was a singer and actress who had enjoyed incredible success, a natural talent, a beautiful woman admired by millions of fans around the world, but a star who died alone, accidentally drowned in the bathtub of her Los Angeles hotel room, her years of substance abuse finally taking their toll.
Houston’s is not a unique story in the world of show business, yet it’s one at odds with the image she cultivated from the start of her singing career, when her self-titled debut album announced her arrival in 1985. It was the beginning of an incredible journey that saw Houston sell millions of albums, score interna-
tional No 1 hits with songs such as How Will I Know, I Will Always Love You, I Wanna Dance with Somebody and Saving All My Love for You, and make the transition from pop diva to movie star in feature films such as The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale.
Houston’s rise and fall is the subject of a new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, which has its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival next month. It’s an engrossing and harrowing film, directed by English documentary maker Nick Broomfield ( Kurt & Courtney, Heidi
Fleiss: Hollywood Madam) and Austrian producer and director Rudi Dolezal, charting Houston’s emergence from Newark, New Jersey, her fame, family life, marriage to singer Bobby Brown and the highs and lows, including motherhood and divorce, that came with it. The overwhelming sense one gets from the film is that Houston was lost in a world of her own making. When, in the documentary, one American interviewer asks her, pertaining to her drug habits, which of them was the devil, Houston fires back: “Well, that would have to be me.”
“It’s sad,” says Broomfield, “but I guess there are lots of different kinds of sadness. It’s a very moving sadness because of her intense beauty. You’re sad with her because here is this woman with such an amazing talent, who was so beautiful and was so funny and playful and delightful … that we kind of share her demise with her.”
Broomfield, who will be in Sydney for the festival screening, began work on Whitney: Can I
Be Me early in 2015. He wasn’t a huge fan of the singer, he says, but felt compelled to tell her story. “I didn’t know that much about her before I made the film,” he says.
“I loved her voice, particularly a cappella, without that epic orchestration behind her. I just thought she had a beautiful voice. I was never really a big fan of her music, unlike a lot of my friends. I was attracted to her because she is so iconic and the first black female crossover artist who had an enormous following among a white audience.
“She was the pre-runner to Beyonce and she made it possible for all these other people that
followed … and at the same time paid an enormous price for it.” Broomfield, 69, had to make Whitney: Can I
Be Me without the co-operation of several key figures in Houston’s life, including Brown, her mother, singer Cissy Houston, and Robyn Crawford, the close friend from her teenage years in Newark who became her personal assistant and creative director. There has been much speculation over the years that the two women also had a romantic, sexual relationship. “It was the relationship that kept her together,” says Broomfield, “and when that relationship ended she lost that kind of unquestioning support. Robyn was the one person who loved her unconditionally, who didn’t need anything from her.”
Also not contributing, other than in background footage, is Clive Davis, the producer and record company executive who signed Houston to Arista Records in 1983 and moulded her into a crossover star. One of the many contentious theories that have emerged since Houston’s death is that Davis turned his protege into something she didn’t want to be.
Hence the film’s title, which refers to something Houston said to Davis early in her career, questioning him on whether she would be allowed to sing the way she wanted to sing, whether she could be the performer that she wanted to be. It came to mean a lot more than that. It was about whether she could merge her level of fame and success with the Whitney Houston of her youth, the sweet teenager with the great voice. She was a proud black woman who didn’t want to lose her identity.
There was a telling moment in Houston’s career, in 1989, when she performed at the Soul Train Music Awards, a celebration of black music produced by the makers of the Soul
Train television music show. It was an event for which she was nominated and at which she met Brown for the first time. When her nomination was announced, however, some of the audience booed, suggesting her music wasn’t black enough to be considered. This hurt Houston, although she said at the time she wasn’t ashamed of the work she had done. Broomfield believes Davis’s stewardship of the singer’s career, making her into a crossover act, had a telling effect on her from then on.
“If Clive was going to be in the film I was going to have to ask some very tough questions,” says Broomfield, “that I don’t think he could have answered or wanted to answer; plus he’s in complete denial and never really took responsibility for what happened. It would have been a tough interview and I don’t think the film is a tough film, it’s a tender film.
“You can put together what Clive’s responsibility is without him. You don’t need to see Clive humiliated. It’s not necessary, because it’s all there.”
Broomfield’s film works well without those non-participants and there are insightful and impassioned contributions from Houston’s brothers and members of the travelling entourage, including a security employee who tried to alert management to the singer’s drug problems and was quickly fired. What really gets the film over the line is the never-before-seen footage of Houston shot by Dolezal behind the scenes during her 1999 world tour, when she was at the peak of her fame. Dolezal, who at the time had made documentaries and videos with Queen, Tom Waits and many others, was given unprecedented access to the Houston travelling show, with a view to it becoming a featurelength doco. The film was never completed.
“It was impossible at the time to make a deal with Whitney about what was going to happen with the film,” says Bloomfield. “Rudi returned to it after Whitney died. He shot more film. He never came to terms with the estate about all of the footage he had. No one was prepared to pay for it. He had a go at putting together the film he wanted to make. It didn’t work. So I met him at the point where he had given up.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew it was exactly what I needed. The two parts complement each other and make a longer film.”
Houston, who was a mother and had been married to Brown for seven years when the Dolezal footage was shot, was already in trouble by then. She and Brown partied hard and were also clearly very much in love. “They were besotted,” says Broomfield, “and she was jealous and he cheated on her, and they wound each other up something rotten, but they were in love.”
Brown travelled with Houston on the tour and began joining her on stage for a cameo appearance. His presence caused friction in the camp, not least with Crawford, who had been the singer’s closest confidante for so many years. She left the Houston team and never returned. Houston, meanwhile, was losing weight and failing to show up for interviews, and in 2000 was fired by her friend Burt Bacharach, musical director of the Academy Awards that year, because she wasn’t capable of singing Over the Rainbow at the ceremony.
In the noughties Houston released more albums, including I Look to You (2009), which preceded the Australian visit. By then she was divorced from Brown and had custody of their daughter, Bobbi Kristina. The tragedy of her mother’s death was compounded in 2015 when Bobbi Kristina, aged 22, was found unconscious in a bathtub with multiple drugs in her system and died six months later.
Whitney: Can I Be Me isn’t the only documentary on the singer to be released this year. Kevin Macdonald, the Scottish director who made the 2012 Bob Marley doco Marley, also has a film in the can, one approved by the Houston family and in which Davis is interviewed. Whether that sheds more light on the troubled life of the star remains to be seen.
Broomfield and Dolezal’s film is an illuminating one, however; a compelling, tragic story of an amazing talent that for numerous reasons lost her way.
“She had a lot of people who were dependent on her,” Broomfield says, “who at the same time didn’t allow her to be herself. She had a lot of people around her always wanting to control her who at the same time were dependent on her. There were also a lot of people who loved Whitney and would do anything for her. You can see on their faces how much they cared.
“We worked on the film for so long and so intensely that I think we got very close to Whitney’s soul,” he says. “There is a lot of Whitney in the film. That’s what moves people.” Whitney: Can I Be Me screens at Sydney Film festival on June 7 and 9.
SHE WAS THE PRE-RUNNER TO BEYONCE AND SHE MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR ALL THESE OTHER PEOPLE NICK BROOMFIELD
Whitney Houston sold millions of albums in her career; the singer in a scene from the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me
Houston performing at Brisbane Entertainment Centre in 2010, two years before she died; English documentary maker Nick Broomfield, right