As the Tribeca Film Festival rolls through New York City this week and next, perhaps no film has been more anticipated or controversial than Whitney: Can I Be Me , an inside look at troubled pop icon Whitney Houston. At the world premiere of the film Wednesday evening, directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal (no relation to Rachel, before you wonder), who documented Houston during a world tour, announced before the film was shown at 5:45 p.m. that they had received clearance to air it just three hours before the scheduled screening. Broomfield declined to give details on the conflict, but adamantly thanked his lawyers for making the film possible that evening.
Given the announcement of behind-the-scenes drama, I watched expecting startling revelations the general audience wouldn’t know about the late pop singer, who died in 2012. Throughout Houston’s career, she was plagued with rumors about her sexuality and confirmed reports (by her) of her drug use and her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, whom she dubbed “the King of R&B.” Whitney: Can I Be Me (the title is a nod to a favorite saying of hers, according to close friends) actually covers thoroughly trod terrain when it comes to Houston. If you’re looking for bombshell revelations, there aren’t many.
What the film offers are more details about the overall behind-the-scenes drama that the public has been privy to through countless interviews and books from various members of Houston’s inner circle. If you’re looking for “tea,” what you’ll get is a weak second pour from the pot. The film all but concludes that she was bisexual, which tabloids had reported for years. Her former bodyguard delves into the explosive relationship between Brown and Robyn Crawford, a close friend of Houston’s who was oft rumored to be her girlfriend. The spats between Brown and Crawford occasionally led to physical altercations. The new news? Sometimes Crawford won.
There are more details about the drug use that occurred during Houston’s world tour, which ultimately earned poor reviews because of her erratic behavior and when she missed her high notes. And there are never-heard-before accounts of just how awful Brown could be to Houston when he was high (in short, he played on her insecurities) and that he was angry when she got sober. But these new details are dull in comparison with Houston’s own account of their rocky relationship during a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, when she recounted the time Brown spit on her.
Perhaps the biggest controversy here is that the doc explicitly blames Houston’s inner circle for her demise and ultimate death. Yes, she consumed the drugs, and had been doing so since around age 18. And yes, she was plagued by common demons: a controlling mother, a desperation to be liked and insecurities about her appearance. And yes, again, she struggled with success and its effect on her marriage (she downplayed her success to compensate for her husband’s ego).
But when she began to obviously spiral because of addiction, the documentary asserts, few people intervened, including her family who were on her payroll and needed Houston to keep performing and bringing in money. Houston’s bodyguard David Roberts, who accompanied her during the disastrous world tour when her voice was shattered, sent a detailed letter to her management team begging for them to help, only to be fired for speaking up.
Whitney also includes never-seen-before concert footage of her 1999 world tour, when she was still at the top of her game. Dressed fabulously in Dolce & Gabbana, she belts out hit after hit in her immediately recognizable and pitch-perfect voice. It’s a final glimpse of the Whitney Houston who paved the way for our current black pop princesses and the one audiences fell in love with.
But the ultimate point of Whitney isn’t to exploit or blame or even to celebrate her vocal prowess. In a way, it’s to humanize her again. In her later years, Houston’s drug use overshadowed her career and turned the onetime pop princess into more of a punchline. But behind the icon and before, after and even during the drug use, Houston was adored by those who knew her best. And it’s easy to see why.
She is silly and sweet and relatable in the film, a voracious eater, who squeals in delight over watching Set It Off. One of her favorite pastimes is re-enacting film scenes with her husband. Their favorites include Ike and Tina Turner from What’s Love Got to Do With It and Mickey and Mallory Knox, the dysfunctional couple from Natural Born Killers. Go figure.
She ached from missing her daughter while on tour and sent her dolls to try to compensate. She deeply loved Bobby Brown, despite the way he treated her at his worst. She was wrecked when he began dating after their 2006 divorce.
Despite the drama, despite the drugs, despite “the Voice,” in scene after scene (after scene), the point is driven home: The real tragedy of Whitney Houston’s death isn’t the loss of a superstar; it’s the unnecessary and far-too-soon death of a mother, daughter and lovable friend.
Whitney: Can I Be Me will air on Showtime in August.