Early in Whitney: Can I Be Me, a new Showtime documentary that explores the issues that led to the demise of Whitney Houston, one of the most purely talented pop singers in music history, Houston is shown onstage in 1999, preparing to kick into the climactic, vocally daunting final chorus of “I Will Always Love You.” The camera closes in on Houston’s perspiring face as she stands on a stage in Frankfurt, Germany. She pauses for what feels like a while. She takes a deep breath, then another, and another. Her eyeballs do a little dance that suggests she’s struggling in some way, perhaps because she’s on something, a fair assumption to make given the drug addictions that dogged her throughout her life and, in 2012, would be cited as the cause of her sudden death at the age of 48. For a few seconds, it’s unclear if she’ll finish the song.
Then Houston gathers herself and does what, until the latter years of her career, she always did: blows the doors, windows, and walls off the joint with the multilayered power and breadth of her voice. This, the documentary argues, is what Houston did for a long time: descended into moments of uncertainty and weakness, often brought on by the people and circumstances around her, then fought ‘em off and kept going, until she couldn’t anymore. The film, which opens at New York’s IFC Center on Friday and debuts on Showtime August 25, also argues that that 1999 world tour — the last successful one of her career, and one documented throughout Whitney: Can I Be Me via previously unseen, behind-the-scenes footage — marked a personal and professional turning point for Houston from which she would never recover.
“There is not one person out there not responsible for the demise of that beautiful woman,” David Roberts, the former bodyguard for the star of The Bodyguard, says at one point, referring to just about everyone who surrounded and worked for Houston. Roberts — who was fired in the 1990s after writing a letter to Houston’s team that outlined the toll her drug abuse was taking — is one of several sources who speak in blunt terms about the pressures placed on the Grammy winner, by everyone from her no-nonsense mother Cissy Houston, to execs at Arista Records, the Clive Davis–founded label that molded her into a mass-appeal (read: friendly to white America) artist, to the various associates who relied on her to keep cash flowing into their bank accounts.
Another significant, consistent reason cited for Houston’s irreparable heartbreak — which allegedly perpetuated her more drastic turn to the drugs and alcohol that frayed her once athletic vocal chords — is the dissolution of her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her best friend, longtime assistant, and, as was often rumored, lover, who severed their ties at the end of that 1999 tour. Houston publicly contended that there was never a romance between them, but multiple people in Whitney: Can I Be Me say there was, and that having to deny the nature of her connection to one of the few people who kept Houston’s head on straight came at her own peril.
“I always say that was the downfall of Whitney,” says writer Alison Stewart, who developed a friendship with “The Greatest Love of All” singer, who is characterized in the movie as bisexual. “Robyn was the person who was keeping her together.”
The biographical details laid out in Whitney: Can I Be Me — about her rise from church choir girl to MTV darling, about Crawford, about her close but self-destructive bond with ex-husband Bobby Brown — will be familiar to fans and anyone who followed the robust media coverage of her throughout her life and in the wake of her death. But as is often the case in documentaries like this, absorbing all those details as part of one, tightly edited story gives them an impact they lack when digested in individual pieces over time.
Co-directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, the filmmaker responsible for capturing that behind-the-scenes footage with generous, all-access permission from Houston, weave those intimate moments — and some moments are in fact so intimate, it seems like the camera might take up residence in Houston’s right nostril — with previous interviews that demonstrate the contrast between the private Houston and the image she publicly projected. The way she overenunciates and nervously laughs in some of her televised sit-downs stands in stark contrast to the more relaxed Houston, dressed in an oversized Cat in the Hat T-shirt while cackling and happily horsing around with Brown. (At one point, the two pretend to be Ike and Tina Turner while reenacting what seem to be scenes from the film What’s Love Got to Do With It? They do this unironically. The irony, however, is not lost on the viewer.)
Brown appears in the documentary, but only in archival interviews. (His sister, Tina, does speak for the purposes of the film.) Crawford is represented, too, but only through conversations she had with Dolezal back in 1999 and candid moments captured from the same period, including one in which she shoots dagger eyes at the camera while Brown tries to pal around with her.
Even though a lot of attention is paid to Houston’s relationships, Whitney: Can I Be Me avoids sinking into the realm of the salacious by devoting nearly as much time to displaying the organic nature of her gifts and thoughtfully exploring the racial implications of maintaining the saintly balladeer image Davis crafted for her. Saxophonist Kirk Whalum, a member of Houston’s band, recalls how she was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards by people in the black community who felt she had sold out. It was an “emotionally devastating” moment, he says, that she never got over. It was also, coincidentally, the same night she first met Brown.
The question that gives this documentary its title — “Can I be me?” — is something Houston frequently rhetorically asked, so much so that her fellow musicians note that they recorded her saying it and turned it into an audio sample. Viewing this film and understanding how often she may have raised that question and perceived the answer to be, “No, you can’t,” confirms that even before Houston started to lose command of that glorious, “Star Spangled Banner” of a singing voice, she was already feeling like she didn’t have one, period.