Whitney Houston, as we know her, was a meteorically talented singer battling the demon of addiction – a demon that ultimately killed her. But who was she behind the bright lights of stardom and the alluring darkness of drugs and drink? Whitney: Can I Be Me seeks to give us a taste of the real Whitney.
Director Nick Broomfield utilises footage shot in 1999 for an unfinished film documenting Houston’s Love is Your Love tour, providing audiences with a raw look at the singer – while she was obviously battling her addiction during the European tour, her spine-tingling voice still giving fans goose-bumps. Interspersed with footage from various awards shows, Houston as a child gospel singer and scenes from her hit film The Bodyguard (1992), Can I Be Me works hard at highlighting her slow-burn breakdown and eventual death.
That’s just it, though – this documentary works so hard at addressing Whitney’s addiction, that it skims the surface of other facets of Whitney’s life, including her seemingly unearthly talent. Addiction is obviously a large part of an addict’s life, so perhaps it’s only logical that a large part of Can I Be Me centres on the drugs. But at times, Broomfield’s approach seems too obvious. He attributes Whitney’s drug addictions to a ‘broken heart’, to her maybe-sexual-maybe-not relationship with her colleague Robyn Crawford, and to her stage mother Cissi’s often controlling nature. While many (or all) of these relationships and elements may have led to Houston’s addiction and untimely death, audiences often know when they’re being manipulated, even while watching a documentary. And at times, I did feel like Can I Be Me was a little manipulative.
All in all though, this was a well-made film. Houston’s rise and fall, while sensationalised, was presented in an entertaining manner. But without Houston herself, equipped with her charisma and megawatt grin, perhaps Can I Be Me would not have been as enjoyable.
Director Nick Broomfield also documented iconic the musicians Kurt Kobain, Tupac Shakur and Notorious BIG in the documentaries Kurt & Courtney (2008) and Biggie and Tupac (2002) respectivaly.