“Whitney : Can I Be Me”
To Be Herself
We have heard this story many times. A young girl from the hood who has a gorgeous voice is on a very quick rise from church singe to megastar and one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. Along the way, she struggles to overcome controlling family members, music executives, world-wide fame and substance addiction. But there is something more in this story and that is the failure to find a workable balance between the two most important people in her life – her closest friend, confidante and one-time alleged lover Robyn Crawford and her recording artist husband Bobby Brown.
Director Nick Broomfield explores these elements subtly and without putting everything in the face of the viewer. There are no explosive revelations, no interviews with key players like Cissy Houston, Crawford or Brown and there is no emphasis on one singular tragic moment that has already been well-documented and mediated. Broomfield lets Whitney do the one thing she always wanted to do in life—the chance to just be herself.
Through the use of talking head interviews with many of the other people who closely surrounded Houston and siblings and the use of archival and never-before-seen footage of Houston taken by co-director Rudi Dolezal during her last successful “My Love is Your Love tour” in 1999, Broomfield gives us Whitney Houston’s story from one climactic downfall to the next.
The story begins at her end; an accidental drowning in her hotel suite at the famed Beverly Hilton whilst under the influence of drugs and alcohol. It then quickly moves to Houston during her last successful tour in 1999 as she emotionally sings her greatest hit “I Will Always Love You” . This then becomes the central thread through which this story is told. Every time we see a happy moment, we cannot help but be saddened by the tragedy that lurks under the surface.
From her early life as a teenage gospel singer under the guidance of her mother Cissy to her discovery by Clive Davis, we see the shy, insecure and self-doubting artist who became greater than herself. One friend says that she changed history for black women and she paid a price to do so.
With her second album, that price became inescapable when media speculation looked at her private life and she was forced to conceal her relationship with childhood best friend and creative director Robyn Crawford. The film alludes to a more intimate relationship with Crawford but neither the family nor Crawford herself has ever publicly confirmed any romantic attachment and Crawford has never spoken publically about her personal relationship with Houston and Houston’s family have tried to diminish Crawford’s place Whitney’s life.
Crawford’s close relationship with Houston was also a problem for her husband Bobby Brown. The two hated each other despite Houston maintaining close relationships with them both and they constantly battled over her affections and attentions. By 1999, Crawford had had enough and resigned due to irreconcilable differences.
Crawford’s departure during Houston’s last successful tour was a major loss for Houston and a contributing factor in her tragic downfall. With her safe harbor gone, Houston was left in the care of family and associates who are presented to us as self-serving enablers.
Broomfield and his co-director Rudi Dolezi, have tried really hard not to sensationalize her life story, which is almost impossible to do with all of the traumas and dramas that Houston was involved in. They do, however, focus on the facts and try to dispel many of rumors that followed Houston for most of her adult life.
Houston’s childhood was full of conflicting standards. Drugs were prevalent at home and even she experimented with them with her two older brothers. On the other hand her mother Cissy Houston, a famous gospel singer was fiercely religious and did not seem to worry about what was going on under her roof. That very hypocrisy was raised later on when the subject of Houston’s closeted bisexuality was discussed as Cissy could never accept it, even if her daughter’s dependence on drugs was not a problem for her at the time.
Record Label mogul Clive Davis was looking for a voice like hers that he could produce to make pop music that would make her the first ever African/American to crossover to the mainstream charts. He, therefore, controlled her music choices very carefully and instantly made her a major success and her debut album was the biggest seller one from a female artist. Houston was therefore happy enough to go along with Davis, but occasionally she would rebel and that’s what the title of this movie tells us.
Everything was going great when Houston went to the Soul Train Awards one night and her changed for ever. Firstly the mainly African/American music business audience booed every time her name was mentioned because they believed she had turned her back on her black roots and sold out. This was also the night she first met Bobby Brown.
Some people claim she never ever really recovered from her community’s reaction that night, and this may have propelled her a little faster than ever into Brown’s arms. Brown was the bad-boy of hip hop who was much younger than her and he gave Houston some street-credit and in return, she gave him money, fame and everything else.
There was, however, one major obstacle in the way of the couple’s new relationship which would eventually lead to marriage and parenthood— Robyn Crawford who had been with Houston from day one and served as her Creative Director, Mentor, Best Friend and probably her lover too. They were as close as two people could possibly be and since she was Houston’s gatekeeper, everyone had to go through Crawford to get to the singer. The moment Brown was on the scene and Houston insisted that Crawford carry on as before, there was a battle between the two of them to be the keeper of Houston’s heart.
In the footage we see here Brown looks like he was auditioning for ‘boys behaving badly’, and though no blame is apportioned to him for Houston’s downfall when she became so reliant on the drugs again, it was clear (according to what we see and hear here) that he was a very bad and powerful influence on her.
By the time of Houston’s last major Tour in 1999, she had become a mere shadow of herself and she struggled to find the energy to get through her performances. She was aided and abetted by her retinue who talked openly of taking drugs with her even though they could see her rapid decline which ended in her death when she was only 48 years old. It’s just over five years since Whitney Houston died and we are regularly reminded of the date on-screen.