The very beginning of Nick Broomfield's new Whitney Houston documentary features voiceover from one of the singer's friends talking about how she died. We all know the story: one of the most talented voices of our time succumbed to substance abuse and drowned in a bathtub. But her friend posits that while drugs were involved, perhaps they weren't the root cause. Perhaps Whitney Houston died of a broken heart, she says. This sad idea settles over the rest of the film like a cloud, as Broomfield recounts the story of a supremely talented yet obviously troubled young woman surrounded by people unable or unwilling to get her the help that she needed.
The Whitney we first see is so young that it's difficult for us to believe she'll become the woman in the bathtub. She's bubbly and bright, singing in her gospel choir at church (led by her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston). That trademark smile is instantly recognisable. She's just a kid with a huge voice, and she's happy.
But that huge voice soon proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Signed at the age of 19, Whitney was thrown into the deep end of an industry that had its own plans for her, moulded into a pop princess by a team of men who worked at Arista Records. Interviewing some of them in the present day, it seems the muscle memory of their puppeteering is still fresh. Her old management team still talks about her like an object rather than a person, and there's little doubt that their level of control over Whitney contributed negatively towards her mental and physical health. You're left feeling sad and frustrated, wanting to call these men into account. Why didn't they help her?
Whitney: Can I Be Me uses a large amount of footage from the singer's 1999 world tour, some of which is absolutely staggering. At this point in her life her voice was still in prime condition – the effort she puts into every single song leaves her drenched in sweat; her calling card "I Will Always Love You" works the audience up into a frenzy; while her ability to "caress notes", as the Arista representatives say, is unrivalled. In a time where there was no Beyoncé and certainly no Janelle Monae or Nicki Minaj, Whitney's music was a carefully crafted brand of pop, and was often sent back to the studio for being "too black-sounding". The movie's title becomes a sad realisation that hits you mid-way through. As much as this is a story about Whitney losing her life, it's also about her losing herself.
The sweetest parts of the film come from home video footage of Whitney just sitting around eating takeaway and watching movies, or acting out silly scenes with her husband Bobby Brown. In these moments, we're reassured that she has friends and family who love her. And yet ultimately, these relationships all fall apart. Even Robyn, her childhood friend who stuck with her for years, eventually fades away.
A lot is made in the film about Robyn and Whitney's relationship, and whether it was more than just a friendship. But regardless of whether Whitney was gay, or bisexual, we get the feeling Robyn is one of the pillars in her life. That they parted ways mid-tour seems to just weaken Whitney's grip on her voice, her health, and her increasingly unhappy marriage. The footage of her being interviewed by Diane Sawyer in 2002 about her addictions is especially moving. When asked what her biggest devil was, she replies that it is herself.
Whitney: Can I Be Me paints a tragic portrait of a woman who didn't have the right people around her, nor the drive to get herself the help she required. To add to the grey cloud, Whitney's daughter Bobbi Kristina lost her life in 2015 in eerily similar circumstances. Sadly, the film feels more like a story about this pattern of unhappiness than it does a celebration of the singer's talent – a shame for a woman who had so much.