Best known for his conspiracy documentaries Kurt & Courtney and Biggie And Tupac, director Nick Broomfield (sharing the credit with Rudi Dolezal) here attempts to emulate Asif Kapadia’s documentary on Amy Winehouse, and, boy, does he do just that. Whitney: Can I Be Me? is a real eye-opener. Anyone coming to enjoy a hagiographic music documentary that’s nothing more than a series of platitudes and rundown of the greatest hits is going to be sorely disappointed as this is a real character study, charting Whitney's initial rise to fame and then her sorry, slow decline and death.
Using the previously unseen backstage footage of Whitney's 2009 European tour as a framing device, a tour that was seen as a turning point in her life, Broomfield (keeping himself behind the camera) charts the rise of a young Whitney, singing gospel in a Newark church at twelve, to her first TV appearance at nineteen. Moulded by her mother Cissy, herself a former singer, Whitney is encouraged to sidestep the expected RnB sound for pure mainstream pop ("Anything 'black-sounding' was sent back" says one producer). The tactic is a success with Whitney's 1985 debut album selling in its millions but she is booed on Soul Train, which had a tremendous effect on her, and branded a sell-out. After that incident she attempted to step away from the Pop Icon role and wondered, When Can I Be?
This is when the documentary gets really meaty. Already at pains to stress that Whitney was 'hood' and experimented with drugs since she was a child, her drug intake increased. The media chipped away at her, suggesting her tight friendship with advisor/protector Robyn Crawford was in fact a love affair. In stepped pop star with attitude Bobby Brown, who liked a drink, and the two indulged in each other's addictions. Jostling for attention, Bobby and Robyn engaged in a series of verbal spats, which came to a head on that 1999 tour when Robyn walked away. Thereafter, Whitney descended into heavier drug use (there is footage of her puffing on a bong at points), which would lead to her overdose in 2012. Bobby later said that if Robyn was allowed to be in her life then she, and their daughter (who died in 2015), would still be alive.
A thoroughly engaging and thoughtful documentary, Broomfield does drop the ball on occasion. Despite the string of hits (and you forget how many there were), Whitney's music takes a backseat with only the live performances from that 1999 tour the only chance to hear the tunes. And it's missing the input from Robyn (although she gave her consent) and Bobby Brown, the two people who knew her best.
Filled with interesting titbits (it was Kevin Costner’s idea to go for an acapella intro to I Will Always Love You), stirring interviews (Houston's bodyguard in particular doesn't pull any punches), and wonderful private footage (Houston and Brown re-enacting movie scenes from Natural Born Killers and What's Love Got To Do With It?), this intimate affair is a real joy.