Film Review: Whitney: Can I Be Me

Documentary that recounts in a polished manner the rise and fall of Whitney Houston.
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Co-directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal know their way around an icon documentary. Between them, they’ve told the stories of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Biggie Smalls and Tupac, Freddie Mercury and The Rolling Stones, among others, including non-artists whose lives momentarily captured the zeitgeist. With Whitney: Can I Be Me, they’ve adroitly tracked the rise and tragic demise of former pop princess Whitney Houston. It’s a compelling story briskly told, but it’s also familiar, and not only because Whitney’s life was frequently front-page fodder. Can I Be Me treats its subject with a reverence that’s a bit too delicate. It is a victim-of-fame narrative, one that reminds us how cruel the slings and arrows of celebrity can be without revealing much that’s ambiguous about the woman they pierced.

Like many docs that recount the life of a very public or mythologized persona, the archival footage of Can I Be Me comprises the most interesting--absorbing, revealing in a draw-your-own conclusions sort of way--material. And those that depict a young Whitney remind anyone who may have forgotten how effervescent she was, to say nothing of that talent. We see her at 12 singing in her church choir and at 19 making her first, remarkable TV appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show.” Drugs, too, make an early appearance in her life and in the film, with friends explaining that drugs were simply something a teenager in East Orange, New Jersey did at parties to have fun.

Can I Be Me opens with and returns to over the course of the film never-before-seen footage of “what would prove to be Whitney’s last successful world tour” in 1999. Meanwhile, many, although by no means all, of the highs and lows of Whitney’s life are revisited. Her teen modeling days are glossed over, and we don’t see any of the bubblegum lipstick or dance moves on display in the “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” video. But we do see Whitney collecting armfuls of awards, then being booed at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 because, the film argues, many in the audience didn’t believe she was “black” enough. We see her as the subject of lesbian rumors alongside her best friend, Robyn. Later, we see her partying and cheesing with Robyn’s nemesis: future husband, enabler and self-proclaimed “bad boy” Bobby Brown. There is, of course, a bit about the mega-successful film The Bodyguard, though it’s mainly used to show how difficult Whitney’s life became after its release, when her star burned so brightly that people everywhere she went couldn’t help but stare. There’s little about her individual hit songs or other films like Waiting to Exhale, except to say that Whitney OD’ed during filming. As noted by a derisive Pattie Howard, who toured with Houston throughout the ‘90s, Whitney the artist accomplished so much, and yet, “all you can [say] is 'drug addict'? Please.”

Whitney: Can I Be Me is sleek, polished and well-edited. It makes liberal use of its footage, feels neither too brief nor too long and features a number of colorful talking heads, which include Whitney’s real-life bodyguard (a former Scotland Yard sergeant) and Bobby Brown’s sister. But the composite picture the film paints feels rather too simple. No one tries to pretend Whitney was not doing drugs when she was, or did not struggle with insecurities and act out against the “princess” image assigned to her. But, in choosing to forego much critical testimony that isn’t also endearing or pitying, the film lays the blame for her very sad end on everyone else: those who surrounded her, or who left. Whitney is made out to be a victim of the people whom she supported with her talent.

True as this may have been, one has the sense there was more to the woman than someone who was simply a victim of circumstances. Here she is a martyr of fame, the insidious reach of which is so great that it also grabbed hold of her daughter, who died two years ago at age 22. The tragedy of Whitney’s end and of her daughter’s death is inarguable. But one wishes a more complex picture of the woman had been rendered. Can I Be Me harps on the fact that all Whitney ever wanted was to be herself yet reveals little of that complicated person beneath the images--good girl, crack-is-whack addict, fame’s victim--that have obscured her.

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