In the midst of TV’s full brunt of Diana deathiversary specials, Showtime has decided that what one naturally wants instead is a dispassionate, depressing documentary about the downward spiral and untimely death of pop superstar Whitney Houston, who drowned in a hotel bathtub in 2012 (official cause: coronary artery disease, complicated by drug use), leaving many unanswerable questions: Who was she? What was her legacy? Where did it all go so wrong?
Unlike the Diana retrospectives, which hew to long-set narratives gleaned from mountains of sourced details, Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s “Whitney: Can I Be Me” (airing Friday) is a troubled and uneven attempt to hunt for meaning where there may very well be none. Even simple chronology seems to vex the filmmakers, who for some reason structure their work around never-seen footage that was gathered during the singer’s 1999 world tour.
What that footage reveals is a career that’s coming apart but not yet beyond repair. At that point, it was taking all of Houston’s strength to reach her legendary upper register. Backstage drama ensued, caused mainly by the predictably sad state of her marriage to singer Bobby Brown, whose domineering presence clashed with that of Houston’s lifelong friend and constant companion Robyn Crawford, long rumored to be her lover.
Nothing about Houston’s sexuality is plainly evident — reflective interviews from former colleagues, friends and associates combine to make a barely definitive statement on the matter. That’s because most basic facts prove challenging wherever Broomfield and Dolezal take this story, as if outside forces are still trying to prevent Houston from ever having a full and accurate biography.
In needlessly rushed sequences, “Whitney: Can I Be Me” glides across Houston’s early days as a New Jersey girl who sang like an angel in church (trained by her mother, Cissy, already a big name on the gospel music scene) and dabbled in rebelliousness. After work as a fashion model and a backup singer, Houston, still a teenager, reached for the most sanitized sort of stardom, steered by the pop impresario Clive Davis, who groomed her for years until he was satisfied with both the sound and the image.
Houston’s 1985 debut album at age 21 rained down hits (“How Will I Know,” “The Greatest Love of All”), but whether by choice or some kind of issue with rights permissions, the documentary is surprisingly thin on retrospective wonder. It was not just about the carefully acquired songs and Houston’s crank-the-volume voice — it was the whole engineered package, illuminated by her astonishing beauty, that captivated MTV viewers and fans. The film has nominal clips of her triumphs but could use more moments where it just stops and marvels at what she achieved. Broomfield and Dolezal seem intent on speeding toward her failures.
Another hit album followed in 1987, but by then Houston began to sense a backlash. “She changed history and she paid a price for it,” observes Pattie Howard, one of Houston’s backup singers. “They wanted to present her as the princess. That’s who white America was presented. They weren’t presented [with] Newark, New Jersey, Whitney.”
Houston was booed at the Soul Train Awards in 1989, which left a permanent sting — “I don’t think [she] ever recovered from it,” says Kirk Whalum, her saxophone player on tour.
Celebrity closes in on her, becoming a fortress. Along with substance abuse and gossip, her reticence becomes the defining story. Her inner circle, made up of family and hangers-on, feasted on her fortunes and then turned on one another.
Broomfield’s previous documentaries include a range of subjects (from the controversial “Kurt and Courtney” almost 20 years ago to films about politics and social issues), but this film lacks his usual dogged approach. The most honest moment comes during an old Diane Sawyer interview, when Houston admits to drugs problems and says her most pernicious demon is herself. (The wealth of voyeuristic material that exists in the 2005 Bravo reality series “Being Bobby Brown” is not included here — a hot mess that turned Houston into an early Internet meme shorthand for celebrity decline. The film also treats the 2015 death of the couple’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina, as a footnote.)
It takes most of the movie for a viewer to realize that “Whitney: Can I Be Me” is not at all the revealing or complete story it purports to be. There are just too many layers of platitude and revised memories. As such, the world may never know the real Whitney Houston; this film makes it seem possible that no one ever did.
Whitney: Can I Be Me (100 minutes) airs Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.