Central casting could not have done it better. An impeccable voice nurtured in a Baptist church in the gospel tradition. A progeny of gospel legend and Grammy winner Cissy Houston. Cousin to chart-topping singer and TV host Dionne Warwick. Goddaughter of Darlene Love of “He’s a Rebel” fame, and an “honorary niece” to the Lady of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin (“Auntie Ree”), and (a lesser known distant cousin to opera singer Leontyne Price).
Whitney Houston was additionally bestowed with physical beauty, which launched a successful modeling career even before her rise as a vocalist. To top it off, she fell under the sway of record industry “Svengali,” Clive Davis, who saw in this budding Ingénue the chance to mold a mega star from the ground up.
She achieved stratospheric success via recordings as a performer and as an actress before she crashed and burned from a drug-related overdose at a posh Beverly Hills hotel. With his newly released “Can I Be Me?” released this week, Nick Broomfield faced the challenge all documentaries face—telling a compelling story where the outcome is already known.
Commissioned for this undertaking by the British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) and Showtime, Broomfield was dissatisfied by his initial efforts before he came across footage shot by another filmmaker, Rudi Dolezal. It had been compiled for an earlier, abandoned project. Using this as a foundation, the resulting effort benefited from Dolizal’s “… fly-on-the-wall” approach, and the two Europeans (Bloomfield is English while Dolizal is Austrian) shared co-director credits.
The documentary starts off with dramatic helicopter footage of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, with audio of a 911 call, reporting an overdose of “…a 46-year-old woman (she was actually 48) found in the bathroom.”
Houston had been found face down in a bathtub. An autopsy later determined the songstress expired of what would later be described as death by the “… effect of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.”
Later in the documentary, viewers see that in the development of Whitney Houston (the strategy to reach the audience) Davis polished away much of the inflections that were a hallmark of her gospel roots. One telling moment at the 1988 Soul Train Awards in Santa Monica (where she was publicly booed) highlighted the backlash expressed by the Black community, a reaction to her apparently turning a back on her heritage and the “sterile” image she projected.
The responsibility to uphold this image, which generated money for the recording company, and financially supported her family and scores of hangers-on in her entourage was at the core of the film. Whitney’s saxophonist, Kirk Whalum remembers this resulted in her oft-repeated aside, “Can I be me?”
Within her crowd, this phase was recorded and “sampled,” then regularly played as a joke.
“I’mma do me!”
The filmmaker’s access to (most of) her friends and intimates provides testimony to all this, with the most poignant memory being former Scotland Yard detective David Roberts, who acted as security for Houston. Roberts’ relationship with the star paralleled the plot of the movie “The Bodyguard (1992),” which gave her a new dimension as a cinema personality and solidified her status as an icon because of her popularity in the gay community. (Roberts acknowledged the similarities between plot and real life, with major differences.
As Roberts says, the film is accurate “… absence two elements Roberts says: I’ve never been shot protecting her, and I’ve never made love to her.”
Roberts’ role as protector compelled him to intervene in Houston’s escalating drug dependence, via a letter to her lawyers, which is featured prominently in the film. In it, Roberts names those involved (their names are redacted to preclude legal issues) directly supplying Houston, while insisting that everyone around her was complicit in her consumption of narcotics.
It is worth noting that her husband, Bobby Brown, and Robyn Crawford (her childhood friend and alleged lover) both declined to participate in the film.
“They’d battle for her affections,” Roberts remembers.
“Bobby and Robyn had some physical altercations, and I think there were times where Bobby wasn’t always the winner. “
Also absent in the documentary is reality TV personality and singer Ray J. He was part of the notorious porn tape that catapulted “celebutante” Kim Kardashian into the world’s global psyche, and was rumored to be her last romance coupling in the days before her death.
In an Esquire magazine obituary the day after she died, Crawford touched on the generosity that prompted her to see that everyone in her entourage traveled in the first-class style that she did. (This, in turn, led to her demise).
“The record company, the band members, her family, her friends, me—she fed everybody.”
Five years later, we still feed on that legacy.
“Whitney: Can I Be Me?” is currently airing on the Showtime Network.