Before the fall typically comes the rise. More a glorified, extended episode of Behind the Music than a fully realized portrait of a superstar’s supernova, Whitney: Can I Be Me doesn’t even allow Whitney Houston that fleeting glory. As presented by director Nick Broomfield, Houston’s entire career is utterly defined by her demise. The hundreds of millions of albums sold, the truckloads of Grammys won, the mile-long string of hit singles—none of it stands for anything other than a magnificent waste of potential, a squandering of a God-given gift by a misunderstood Jersey girl who couldn’t overcome her own infatuation with life’s myriad devils.
Whitney: Can I Be Me’s first and most defining flaw centers around the decision to build itself almost entirely around grainy footage shot by Rudi Dolezal (credited as the film’s co-director) at the turn of the century, as Houston was touring through Europe on behalf of 1999’s My Love Is Your Love. Though that album represented the last great gasp of pop dominance for Houston, Dolezal’s footage highlights the physical and vocal decline that would later become the grisly centerpiece of Being Bobby Brown. That’s the structural framework Broomfield chooses to filter his entire portrait through.
Yes, Houston’s death at 48 inevitably invites inquiry into the idea that the singer’s entire life must have been one great tragedy. But Broomfield also doesn’t seem interested in exploring that tragedy in anything other than stridently individualistic, pop-psychological terms. Houston’s stormy reception first in the black community and, later in life, among those prone to picking up a tabloid has always been tied up in the racial context of the singer’s meteoric rise, and the almost immediate backlash among black audiences who spat contempt for her willingness to allow Clive Davis to act as her own personal Faust. A Faust who didn’t have any taste for, say, basslines or the titular components of R&B, and audiences who let her know, and in no uncertain terms, how little they felt for her. How will she know? The booing at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards certainly left little doubt.
A compelling case for how stacked the deck was and continues to be against black female artists could be made from Houston’s sob story alone, and it’s one that Broomfield—who includes the booing incident prominently in the documentary’s first act—demonstrates awareness of, at least to the extent that he can exploit the grim details. And none of them does he exploit half as recklessly as the closeness of Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, her lesbian best friend and, evidently, in-a-perfect-world girlfriend. Broomfield emphasizes not only the blustery friction between Crawford and Houston’s bad-boy paramour, Bobby Brown, but also the icy reception that would’ve crossed over into fiery rebuke from Houston’s religious elders, like her gospel-singer mother, Cissy Houston, should Crawford’s clear affections cross over into an actual adult relationship. (In that sense, Broomfield sets up Houston as a figure who couldn’t win from any angle, be it the hip audiences who laughed at her street cred or the traditionalist community who would refuse to endorse any form of non-heteronormative sexuality.)
Worse still, politically significance-drenched highlights from Houston’s career are glided past, if not outright ignored. At the apex of the Bush 41 era, her pipes issued probably the finest or, depending on your stance, most objectionable reflection of wartime jingoism when she blasted her way through the greatest rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” ever recorded. Of equal significance, the most stunning live performance of her early signature song “Greatest Love of All” was given at her 1991 welcome-home concert for the troops at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk. These quintessential moments of Houston captivating what a generation ago had been referred to as the Silent Majority arguably complicate her legacy every bit as much as her allegedly self-destructive marriage to Brown. The difference? They’re moments of unabashed triumphalism, so it’s no surprise Broomfield finds little use for them in his dogged fixation on the humiliating swan dive.