Whitney Houston was the queen of pop whose soaring voice and powerful songs captured the hearts of millions. Her tragic death at age 48 came decades after her peak, but was mourned by the world over as another example of the sad demise of a former icon. Though her death, like many celebrities, was due to long lasting drug problems, this new documentary on the artist opens with an unseen interviewee who believes that, ultimately, she died of a broken heart.
And thus the tone is set for Whitney: Can I Be Me. Director Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie and Tupac) does a great job in providing a general overview of the singer’s life, covering her childhood growing up in Newark, New Jersey, her meteoric rise to fame, her movie career, as well as her tumultuous relationship with singer/rapper Bobby Brown.
The use of never-before-seen backstage footage (from an unfinished documentary by Rudi Dolezal, shot during the singer’s 1999 European tour) and personal videos provide us with an intimate look at how Houston lived and her outlook on life. In one interview she asserts that it’s not success that changes a person, but fame. And it seems that it was her fame that led to much unhappiness in her life. Despite being critically and commercially successful, the pop singer was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards due to the perception from the black community that she “sold out.” Then there was the time when her father John Houston—with whom she had a close connection—sued her for $100,000,000. Yet, there was also a lot of joy. She loved performing and adored her daughter Bobbi Kristina—so much so that it’s revealed that at one point Houston tried to quit drugs for her daughter’s sake.
Unfortunately, while broad and somewhat insightful, the documentary doesn’t go deep enough with the issues that were supposedly contributing factors to her death and decline. Aspects such as her drug addiction, sexuality and abusive relationship with Brown aren’t shied away from, but they aren’t given a strong enough spotlight either. Her possible bisexuality and relationship with friend Robyn Crawford, for example, was a source of tension when Houston married Brown, but neither Crawford nor Brown were interviewed specifically for the documentary. They are seen and heard via media interviews and various other pieces of footage, but being what they are, the two are one such missing element that leaves the story incomplete.
Nevertheless, Whitney: Can I Be Me is occasionally deeply touching and heartbreaking. The documentary’s overall message comes through effectively: the late singer will always be loved, and will always be missed.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10