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Whitney: Can I Be Me

September 24, 2017

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)
Director: Nick Broomfield

Whitney-H-300x202.jpg (300×202)

Synopsis: The life and death of US pop artist, Whitney Houston.

Review: The growing fad for feature length documentaries based on recently deceased celebrities (think Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy, and Nick Broomfield’s very own Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac) are the cinematic version of an open goal in football. The tragic refuse, the rise and fall structure, the mass of archive footage, the in-built audience investment in the story – these factors are all proving increasingly irresistible in our celebrity-doused society, but beyond the sensational raw materials, are the films themselves actually any good?

In the case of Broomfield’s crack at the Whitney Houston story, Whitney: Can I Be Me, I’d say – not especially. Surprisingly, with Broomfield at the helm, the pitch of the piece is low key and restrained. Broomfield keeps his authorial mitts well out of the diegesis, and it’s actually a fairly regulatory sweep through the particulars of the Houston story. Beyond the opening coda of a panoramic helicopter shot of the LA hotel on the night Houston died played alongside the emergency call her panicked assistant made on finding her body (it conjures an almost noirish sense of the nocturnal vices of LA as the perspective really widens over the city), the rest of the film is exceedingly conventional.

We get the obligatory opening act exploring Houston’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, and the first seeds of the successful singer she was to become. Although some of the biographical detail is noteworthy (how drugs were part of her life from a very young age – she was even supplied by her brothers), there’s very little probing of how Houston really emerged as a singer. There’s certainly almost nothing on the actual technicalities of Houston’s voice and talent, bar the aside of her gospel lineage and distant relation to Dionne Warwick.

Thereafter, Broomfield devolves into a snug structure whereby he charts the Houston story through an overly determined insistence on her primal dilemma between old friend and would-be lover Robyn Crawford, and her soon-to-be husband, bad boy Bobby Brown. Juxtaposed to this is in-depth footage of Houston’s 1999 World Tour which functions as the turning point in her journey from bona fide world superstar to washed up drug addict.

The documentary will invariably be of interest to those with a passing interest in Houston’s music and sad life story, but the film itself won’t endure as any shimmering example of superior musical documentary. Even its attempts at reflexivity with the movie title being an echo from Houston’s own documented opining on her career and personal dilemmas fall flat. By the film’s end, truthfully, no greater insight has been extracted as to who this strangely anomalous superstar really was. It’s all surface – much like the singer’s carefully calibrated career itself. (September 2017)

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