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« Emmy FYC: Samira Wiley in "Orange is the New Black"| Main| Beauty Break: Mahershala Ali and the Beach »
Tuesday
Jun 20 2017

Pride Month Doc Corner: 'Whitney: Can I Be Me'

This month for Pride Month we're looking at four documentaries that tackle LGBTIQ themes.This week it isWhitney: Can I Be Me,the latest in a long line of musical documentaries.

There is no need to introduce Whitney Houston;we all know her and her songs.I also have no doubt that people reading this know her story of soaring talent and troubled downfall due to drugs.Hers was an arc that is rooted in the blueprint of great cinematic tragedies,a story that we have seen play out plenty of times before (in life as well as in in the movies),that it would be easy to roll our eyes at how cliched it was if it weren't so painfully true.

If it feels somewhat curious then that director Nick Broomfield has turned his documentary eye to her story then that's because it is.Unlike his earlier music docoKurt & Courtney(or even his pair of Aileen Wuornos docs in which he takes an antagonistic role with his subject),there isn't an antagonist to go after.Whitney: Can I Be Me's central conflict is predominantly between Whitney and herself.The title,"Can I Be Me",was a phrase used often by Whitney – at times in the backstage footage,her team are even seen joking about it – as a means of apologising for being herself rather than the perfect pop creation crafted by Clive Davis and her mother.

Rightfully so,Whitney: Can I Be Methen focuses on many of the parts of her life that made her Whitney that the public didn't necessarily see.The element that gets the most play here is her sexuality,particularly her friendship (and assumed relationship) with Robyn Crawford.This being an unofficial documentary made without the assistance of her family (or the rights to her catalogue of music and videos,unfortunately),so Broomfield utilises interview footage with mother Cissy on Oprah's talk show saying she'd rather a dead daughter than a gay daughter (!!),as well as a sparse selection of talking head interviewees like Houston's make up artist and real bodyguard who are filmed in front of a distracting crinkled black curtain that is as low-rent as you can get.

A backing curtain may seem like a strange thing to comment on so purposefully,but it's actually a strikingly tell-tale symbol for the film as a whole.ForWhitney: Can I Be Meis a very sloppy film.It is a film that rightfully puts a large focus on the career-altering moment at the Soul Trail Awards where she was booed for being ‘too white' after 1987'sWhitney,but then almost completely neglects her 1990 follow-upI'm Your Baby Tonight(there is one brief allusion to it),an album on which she held greater creative control and was seen as her most significant foray into R&B yet.

This is a film that puts (yet again,not completely unjustified) much focus on Whitney's feeling of freedom and peace when singing gospel as a child,yet fails to make even a single reference toThe Preacher's Wifesoundtrack on which she sang gospel (the highest-selling gospel album of all time).It's a film that uses previously unused live concert footage from her 1999 world tour that was filmed by Rudi Dolezal (listed as co-director) in support ofMy Love is Your Love– an album that isn't discussed in any career context – and doesn't mention that she had another failed tour later in her career.None of her albums post-2000 are referenced andWaiting to Exhaleis only mentioned in passing as the film-set she had an overdose on.It's a film that suggests Whitney wasn't actually a superstar untilThe Bodyguardand then fails to dive into that film and the record-breaking soundtrack's impact beyond an out-of-place conversation about how Kevin Costner came up with idea for the iconic a capella intro to "I Will Always Love You".

These lapses are small potatoes,however,when it comes to Broomfield's biggest and most egregious omission.If you had told me a month ago that I would go and see a documentary about Whitney Houston's life and death that not only failed to discuss the allegations of domestic violence at the hands of her ex-husband Bobby Brown,but then even went on to paint Brown as,depending on your read of the film,somewhat sympathetic,I would have balked.Whitneypays lip service to the rumours by including a clip from the couple's reality TV show where she confronts Brown about his emotional abuse of daughter Bobbi Kristina,but elsewhere the film paints a portrait of Whitney and Bobby as two sides of the same volatile coin rather than an abusive man who pushed a woman he saw as his possession to the brink physically and emotionally with little regard for her career and,ultimately,her life.

A few years ago I struggled with Asif Kapadia'sAmy,a film that featured footage of Amy Winehouse explicitly saying she hated the public knowing everything about her and yet they went and made a movie about her that aired her dirty laundry anyway.Unlike that film,there's no sense that Whitney wouldn't want her fans to know these things – in fact,there's little here that fans won't already know – and the film's suggestion that had she just been able to ‘be me' from the beginning she would still be here making brilliant music is a powerful one and should have been a stronger angle than mere tribute (like the authorized doc that is in production likely will be).

Still,it's hard not to watchWhitneyand not get a squirming sensation that Broomfield has taken the life of a woman whose struggles were regular fodder for tabloids and more or less picked up where they left off once the autopsy was done.There is a lot here that is fascinating – particularly from Dolazal's backstage footage that often catches its central figure in moments of contemplation and innocent musical bliss between the obviously drink-and-drug ravaged rushes – but there's just as much that is speculative and crass.Still,it's the lapses in simple documentary common sense that make this film feel like one more indignity to her legacy.

Release:Currently playing in Australia and will screen around the world over the coming months.It will air on Showtime in August,no doubt preceded by an Oscar-qualifying release.

Oscar Chances:It's hard to tell how the documentary branch will react to music docs,but while I initially thought this could be Broomfield's year,I suspect this one will have to sit out,especially since I'm not sure how well Showtime have done in the past with Oscar campaigns.

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Reader Comments (3)

Can I just say Nick Broomfield is a hack director,and his films are mostly artrocious to watch (with,admittely,the exception of his films about Wuornos)?

I remember hating 'Kurt & Courtney' more than I ever hated a documentary (if you can call it that) before or since;titling the film "I Hate Courtney Love and I Want the World to Know"would at least have been more honest.To the best of my recollection (it was years ago that I've seen it,and I have no intention of ever seeing it again),at one point he is interviewing an ex of Courtney Love,letting him say into the camera that Love was terrible in bed - something that wouldn't even have a point in the story Broomfield is trying to tell.I also made the mistake of watching his Sarah Palin film (thinking that a common enemy might make watching the film at least tolerable),only to be deeply ashamed to witness a film that the alt-right will always be able to point at when they need an undeniable example of hack liberals libelling one of their idols in a cringe-worthy way.

(Sorry for venting this,but I had to get it out of my system when I read "Broomfield's year"in an Oscar-wise context.)

June 20,2017 | Unregistered CommenterMrW

If you haven't got the access don't turn on the camera,I find this muck raking documentary in bad taste,it tells us nothing and really do we need to know,would it change our view of the legend Whitney Houston,my opinion probably not.

June 20,2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I'm loving these reviews,Glenn

June 20,2017 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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