When Whitney Houston was found drowned in a hotel bathtub in 2012, with a variety of drugs in her system, the primary global reaction was shock. Not just that she’d died at the age of 48, but that a popstar who built her image – or had it built for her – on wholesomeness and God-loving positivity had lived such a troubled private life. Where had things gone wrong?
That’s a question documentarians Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal keep asking here – though a firm answer evades them. Where Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy was able to put together a vivid portrait of Amy Winehouse using countless hours of private and public video footage, Whitney is hobbled by the fact Houston came to fame before phones had cameras, before eyewitnesses routinely recorded everything. Most of its off-stage material is from a single tour of Houston’s in the late ’90s. It provides some insight into what she was like off-duty but it is, to nick a Houston line, one moment in time. To fill in the portrait, it requires the memories of those closest to Houston, which it doesn’t have.
There’s no input from mother Cissy who, it’s claimed, pushed her daughter towards fame. There’s no Bobby Brown, the ex-husband who seemed to be the starting gun for her decline. Most importantly, there’s not a word from Robyn Crawford, the long-time friend who may also have been Houston’s girlfriend. The secrecy of that relationship might have been at the heart of the singer’s troubles, the film suggests, but it doesn’t have anyone to firmly corroborate that – it’s just more gossip.
If its grip on important facts is slippery, Whitney: Can I Be Me gives a fascinating look at the making of a popstar before the age of social media. Houston was presented as a perfect pop princess. But the film shows a normal girl who partied, was sexual and casually enjoyed drugs in her teenage years. People wanted this extraordinary talent to come out of someone equally extraordinary. The sadness of the film is that at its conclusion Houston’s inner life remains a mystery. She asks, ‘Can I be me?’ but we don’t find out who that was.