Whitney is seldom mentioned in the list of ’80s biggies (Prince, Bruce, Bon Jovi, Madonna, Jacko, Hall & Oates etc.) – strange considering her 1985 debut album sold 22 million copies, her second 25 million and she’s still the only artist in history to have seven consecutive US number one singles (one more than the The Beatles).
Her death in 2012 at the age of just 48 followed decades of worldwide success but also attendant tabloid speculation and a multitude of legal problems (her father John sued her for $100 million in 2002). Her marriage to R’n’B ‘badboy’ Bobby Brown was endlessly analysed, as was her close friendship with Robyn Sampson.
Nick Broomfield’s ‘Can I Be Me?’ (Rudi Dolezal gets a co-director credit for the inclusion of his scintillating 1999 concert/backstage footage) is the first Whitney doc out of the blocks – another ‘authorised’ film is apparently on the way shortly – and it’s a significant change of style for Broomfield. He dials down the quirkiness, resists any on-screen cameos and cranks up the gravitas, seeming far more affected by Whitney’s demise than he was by the deaths of Biggie, Tupac, Kurt Cobain or Aileen Wuornos. There are certainly no obvious ‘laughs’ in this one and it’s by far his most commercial film, possibly reflecting the influence of Asif Kapadia’s similarly-themed ‘Amy’.
But other things haven’t changed – Broomfield’s impressive range of interviewees (including Whitney’s brothers, friends, bodyguard, hair stylist, drug counselor, musical director and backing singers) are shown in unflattering close-up, but all speak with sometimes breathtaking candour. The only notable no-shows are Bobby Brown and best friend Robyn Crawford, for reasons which become abundantly clear.
We get a strong sense of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey – ‘the hood’ – when ‘Nippy’ was a lovable, caring, somewhat mischievous kid brought up singing gospel in church and mucking around with her brothers. Inheriting a formidable set of pipes from her mum Cissy Houston, legendary impressario Clive Davis signed Nippy as a charming, cheeky 20-year-old and demanded a debut album that would appeal to White America; as an Arista A&R man says on camera, ‘He DIDN’T want George Clinton music.’
Broomfield analyses this as the crux of the problem, in the sense that Whitney achieved her huge early success without ever referencing the sort of music she was passionate about. The title of the film comes from her catchphrase developed when touring in the late ’90s when she would insist on bringing in elements of gospel, jazz and R’n’B (presumably against the wishes of her record company).
Broomfield doesn’t fudge the drug issue, and finds plenty of self-criticism from Whitney as well as corroboration from various sources. Bobby Brown comes across as somewhat of a loose cannon but essentially harmless. Despite his posturing, the intimate backstage footage demonstrates that he certainly loved Whitney and vice versa. Their Ike and Tina ‘abuse’ skits are amusing, though may offend some. More troubling was Brown’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, who allegedly was having an affair with Whitney throughout much of her career.
Broomfield hasn’t been able to secure the rights to any of Houston’s recorded catalogue, so the film arguably relies too much on Nick Laird-Clowes’ mournful, somewhat clichéd original score. But Rudi Dolezal’s concert footage is evocative and moving. Love or hate ‘I Will Always Love You’, it’s hard not to be affected by Houston’s mesmerising live performance during a 1999 gig in Germany, one of many great musical moments in the film.
Michael Baker’s yin/yang bass-drum skin from that 1999 tour says it all – ‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is finally another desperately sad music-biz story. But it’s well worth catching even if it (understandably) lacks the anarchic zeal of Broomfield’s best work.
One interviewee who might have been worth tracking down is Bill Laswell, who to the best of my knowledge was the first producer to tap into Whitney’s potential when he helmed this early gem, recorded when she was just 19 years old.