By Amara Iwuala
The beauty of a fabulously told story in documentary film-making is that although the audience may know the outcome, they are, nonetheless, captivated by the events that lead to the end because the film-maker chooses irradiating moments that also offer maximum entertainment.
British film-maker Nick Broomfield makes Whitney, Can I be Me?, a cutting-edge documentary on one of the best recording artistes of all time, the late Whitney Houston. Broomfield marries a lot of relevant footage with the interviews of friends and relatives as well as people who worked closely with Houston.
The musician’s beginnings are traced through the footage of the 1967 black riots in Newark, which forced the Houston family to relocate to East Orange from Newark (both in New Jersey), where Whitney was born in 1963.
Broomfield interviews up to twenty people in the film, yet he keeps their contributions very short, knowing that talking heads should never be the basic currency of a documentary movie-maker who wishes to tell a resonating story.
Relevant footage are in full supply, a compliment to effective research and a good record-keeping culture. Broomfield incorporates a 1975 footage of Whitney, performing at the New Hope Baptist Church in East Orange plus one where Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mum, also performs in the same church.
Amongst other footage in the film, there is an old interview with Whitney’s husband, Bobby Brown, another with Clive Davis, Vice Chair of Arista Records and excerpts of Whitney’s first TV appearance in 1983 plus a TV interview she granted in 1996.
The voice of Alison Samuels, writer/Whitney’s friend, is also featured in the documentary. Of course, clips of Whitney rendering her hit songs on stage, from time to time, are shown in the film. The star musician is also shown at various award shows like the American Music Awards, the Grammies and the Soul Train Music Awards.
In one edition of the Soul Train Awards, Whitney is booed and it is disclosed that the humiliation arose from the fact that African-Americans were disappointed that she was not black enough and not R & B enough, but had allowed herself to be taken away by white people for whom she had become a pop icon.
The audience is informed of the resounding success that Whitney attains. More than twenty-five million records from her debut album, which had three number one hits, were sold worldwide. Houston’s involvement in films like The Bodyguard and Waiting to Exhale is equally mentioned.
Whitney’s marriage to Bobby Brown is also under scrutiny in Whitney, Can I Be Me? The film-maker pays more attention to the good times the couple spent together. Their short conversation about their young daughter whilst Whitney was in rehab shows that beyond the reports of abuse, violence, infidelity and drugs, they, as a family, tried to tackle their problems through dialogue.
The allusion that Whitney, at one point, could have been in a same-sex relationship with Robyn Crawford, her childhood friend and later creative director, is never confirmed by both women. The tension between Crawford and Bobby Brown is highlighted, but it is not clear whether Crawford’s aim was to keep Whitney away from drugs or that she saw Brown as a competitor for Whitney’s affection. The film-maker gives current information on Crawford, who is no longer in the limelight. The audience is informed that Crawford and her partner, both gay people, are currently parents to two adopted children.
There are also problems from Whitney’s maiden home. According to Kenneth Reynolds, Marketing Executive at Arista Records, “Her (Whitney’s) mum was controlling her (Whitney). Cissy wanted a career like Whitney’s. She thought Whitney stole a lot of her style. Her (Cissy) music and albums were not phenomenal.” There is also the regrettable lawsuit instituted by Whitney’s father as he lay, dying.
Following Whitney’s well-known battle with drugs, which leaves her in tears when she appears on the screen, at times, Whitney said, “You ‘gotta’ know who you are before you step into this business because if you try to find it, you probably become someone else that you don’t even know.”
When asked if success changed her, she noted, “Success does not change people, fame does.” With tens of individuals at a megastar’s beck and call, not to mention tens of thousands of spectators at concerts, it may, indeed, be difficult for such celebrities not to feel invincible.
Whitney’s death to drug overdose at 48 is very tragic, but the demise of her only child, Bobby Kristina, under similar circumstances, is heart-rending and a confirmation that destructive habits are unsparing.
Everyone, especially those in show business, should see Whitney, Can I Be Me? because it presents an opportunity for self-admonition against a habit that quickly turns into an addiction – one that has ruined the lives of many a promising or renowned individual.