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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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.


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

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