Whitney: Can I Be Me is a moving documentary by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal tracking the inspiring career but tragic life of the wonderfully talented Whitney Houston. Through the talking heads of friends and family interviews, and the fascinating fly-on-the-wall style footage, this film explores the intense scrutiny placed on Houston, from her young and humble gospel beginnings to the height of her legendary career, and whether these pressures may have been the cause of her isolated and devastating death.
This documentary is made under the impression that the audience is already familiar with the headlines of Whitney’s life – her struggle with addiction, the troubling legal issues with her family, her abusive relationship with Bobby Brown and the tragic death of her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, shortly after Whitney’s own death by drug overdose in 2012. Regardless if you’re a Whitney Houston fan or not, familiar with her life and her music or not, this is still a poignant and relevant story, particularly in the wake of the many musical icons we’ve lost in recent years.
The title ‘Can I Be Me’ neatly incapsulates the film’s focus – a woman thrust into the spotlight, her image, relationships, and career under a constant public eye – every moment in Houston’s life was a performance of being the “perfect girl”. Yet the film never fully commits to answering its central argument – whether Whitney’s downfall was self-inflicted or if she was the victim of fame. Instead the film remains fairly balanced, even on the subject matter of “the original bad boy”, Bobby Brown.
Interviews with her friends and family may have disapproved of the marriage, but admit that Houston was using before she met Brown. However, the most important theme in the documentary isn’t Houston’s marriage, the drugs, the fame nor even her talent. Ultimately this story is about Houston’s relationship with her best friend, Robyn Crawford. A relationship steeped in alleged controversy of homosexuality, jealously and conflict. However the emphasis remained on the love and support they had for one another, and the notion that had Crawford still been in Houston’s life towards the end of her career, she would still be with us today.
The structure of the story is where the documentary falls apart. It can’t quite decide whether to base the narrative around the chronological arc of her career, or around the headlines of Houston’s life – sexuality, family, religion, race, fame, marriage, and of course addiction. The story is still coherent, but feels choppy and jarring, jumping back and forth from mostly performances of her 1999 tour to conveniently tie into the next subject matter.
This is a common issue with the genre of documentary – often raising whether the context of the footage we are seeing has been manipulated by the directors’ ideology rather than objectively tracking the progression of her career. Whitney : Can I Be Me leaves a nagging feeling that we never quite get the full story. This is particularly in issue in the final act of the documentary, wrapping up her divorce, depression and death too quickly, the pace of the film, that had been so consistent and compelling, is sadly thrown off kilter at the most crucial point in the story.
Broomfield and Dolezal have crafted a touching tribute to the tragic life of Whitney Houston. They keep a consistent tone of intimacy with the rare and exclusive footage that makes the audience feel like we have been invited into the private moments in the life of this superstar. This is not an autopsy of her death, but a celebration of the legendary woman.
Whitney: Can I Be Me Review