Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Whitney: Can I Be Me

The latest documentary from Nick Broomfield (and co-director Rudi Dolezal), Whitney: Can I Be Me is a warts-and-all retelling of megastar Whitney Houston's life and tragic death.

Whitney Huston was one of the first singers I knew by name. One of my first musical memories is hearing the soundtrack to The Bodyguard blaring from the radio. Other than that, I went into this movie knowing almost nothing about Houston beyond the key bullet points. A few people in the audience seemed to know more of the stories in the documentary, so I'm assuming a lot of this material is not new.

I found it all fascinating. Houston is one of those singers who always felt a little too big and remote for me to latch onto (kind of like Beyonce now), but the way this documentary works is like a sledgehammer, shattering Houston's porcelain image to reveal the fragile humanity behind the hit records and big voice.

The film's thesis is simple: the ingredients for Huston's rise and fall were there from the beginning, and her image as a pristine pop singer only exuberated the cracks which were already there. Pre-fame, Houston was just an ordinary kid growing up in New Jersey. While Bobby Brown is treated as her personal Satan, tempting her toward her doom, Houston was familiar with drugs from a young age. With fame and success, her dalliance became a full-blown addiction, compounded by her marriage to self-styled bad boy Bobby Brown. It then fell to her retinue of family and friends, all on the payroll, to get her out of trouble. Too intoxicated with keeping their personal gravy train running, they did nothing, and Huston's demise was inevitable.

This movie had me thinking a lot about the Kuleshov effect (Google it). Watching footage of Houston while various voices from her past attempt to illuminate her personality feels simultaneously immersive and distancing. It makes you consider just what is really going on when the exhausted singer is staring at a mirror after a show, or when Bobby Brown wraps his arm around her friend Robyn Crawford's neck and poses for the camera. The effect is as baffling as it is revelatory.

Forced to construct his subject from the outside looking in, and without the input of her family (outside of existing archive footage), the portrait Broomfield and Dolezal develops of a poor girl with low self-esteem, a driven, religious mother and a conflicted sexuality. The most fascinating conflict is the one within Huston herself -- between the girl she was, and the bland, all American persona she embraced, and then felt she had to reject. It's a conflict that bubbles throughout the film.

In the years preceding her death, Houston had gone from pop royalty to a pop culture punchline, her histrionics as a performer ridiculed and her personal life treated as another celebrity train-wreck. Combined with testimony from friends and workmates (including a stylist and a former bodyguard), Houston emerges as a flawed but extremely sympathetic figure. Rather than an arrogant buffoon, she comes off as a trapped,  immature woman who was unable to pull herself free of the influences that were bringing her down. She is a woman under siege, and every time it feels like she will break free, something will happen, self-created or otherwise, to scupper her escape.

The biggest revelation of the documentary is the figure of Robyn Crawford, Houston's best friend since childhood and -- since she did not participate in the documentary -- rumoured lover. If there is an unsung hero(ine) in this story it is Crawford. The first person to raise the alarm about Houston's spiralling addictions in the eighties, Crawford was shunned and ignored by Houston's family, who were already suspicious of their bond. When Bobby Brown enters the picture, Robyn becomes her guardian angel (at one point, the former bodyguard recalls Crawford beating Brown up). In the end, Bobby won and Crawford disappeared, leaving Houston with no real close friends.

Always portrayed as the villain who brought her down, Brown emerges as a gormless idiot, and a mutual partner in Houston's downfall. Seemingly unable to comprehend his wife's troubles, he seems more concerned with feeding his ego than helping his spouse. Brought together by similar backgrounds, they shared each others' addictions, fed and attacked each other's egos, and sent Huston on a downward spiral she could not get out of.

It's not all depressing. Broomfield and Dolezal utilise home movies and previously unseen footage from an aborted documentary of her 1999 tour to show the Houston behind the perfect veneer: joking with her friends; playing around in her hotel room; going on holidays with her daughter. In one unintentionally meta-textual scene she and Bobby re-enact one of the confrontation scenes from the Ike-Tina Turner movie What's Love Got To Do With It. Midway through, Huston takes over and begins to re-write the scene, shifting the power from Bobby/Ike to Tina/herself, so that both women can win. It's moments like this where Broomfield and Dolezal's movie is at its strongest, letting his star take the reins and run the show. While the interweaving of eyewitnesses and montage work well, it is on-the-fly vignettes like this which feel the most insightful into Huston's personality.

For a movie about someone I knew almost nothing about, this movie is a sucker punch. The finale is a combination of footage and stills, accompanied by a live recording of Houston singing. As the credits begin, the music cuts out, leaving only images of Houston in life smiling straight at the viewer. It's an unsettling effect, and at this point it felt like the full weight of Houston's life hit me all at once.

Like his subject, Broomfield and Dolezal's film is obsessed with finding the real Whitney. And it gets damn close. I would have liked more input from Crawford and Houston's mother Cissy (present via some rather chilly segments from her interview with Oprah after Huston's death); and I would have also like more information about Huston's activities post-divorce (the movie cuts from that moment to her death in 2012), such as the release of her comeback album in 2009 or her long-in-development movie project, the remake of the 1976 musical Sparkle, which was released a few months after her death.

Ultimately, Can I Be Me is an extremely empathetic look at a woman who never had a chance to be herself. Highly recommended.

After reviewing Can I Be Me, I went back and listened to Houston's first album. You can find the review here.

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