Long before her death in 2012 at age 48, Whitney Houston had become a cultural icon as recognized for her personal downfall as her success. The dazzling yet tender new documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me — which is receiving its world premiere on April 26 at the Tribeca Film Festival — reconciles both her tragic spiral and her astonishing talent. Co-directed by veteran documentarians Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and Rudi Dolezal (Freddie Mercury, The Untold Story), the film combines spectacular, sing-your-heart-out concert footage of Houston with intimate private videos of the singer and testimonials from those who knew her.
The result is an experience that, not unlike a miniature version of the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America, tells a much larger story of American culture, celebrity, race, gender, and self-destruction through the prism of one famous person. The movie, produced under the Showtime Documentary Films banner, consciously steers away from the MadTV stereotype of Houston and instead focuses on the forces that shaped her — including her mother Cissy Houston and producer Clive Davis, the subject of his own documentary that premiered at Tribeca, who saw in the teenage Houston an opportunity to mold America’s first black female pop superstar.
The film also offers a sensitive, trenchant examination of Houston’s relationship with her friend Robyn Crawford, long a topic of innuendo, and points convincingly to signs (via multiple talking heads) that Crawford’s exile from Houston’s life was an overt factor in the singer’s undoing.
“There’s been a lot of stuff done on Whitney, but if you look at them, they’re pretty much the same story,” says Broomfield, joined by Dolezal and the movie’s producer and editor Marc Hoeferlin on the roof of the Tribeca Film Festival hub. “But I became more obsessed with the fact that she was this incredible crossover artist. Clive Davis’ genius was to market her to white teenage girls, and she eventually paved the way for Beyoncé. But that took its toll, and she paid this price for it.”
Dolezal, who was friends with Houston up until her death, had recorded more than 500 hours of footage of the singer both onstage and in private moments during her 1999 world tour. The concert film was shelved after Dolezal asked Houston to address the rumors of drug addiction on camera. “She said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t have a drug problem.’ So we let the footage sit. I couldn’t release a tour film in my name where we are not touching on the main theme that the whole world is talking about.”
For years, he had refused offers from many people (including Clive Davis) to buy the footage but agreed after a meeting with Broomfield last May. Dolezal’s footage has never been seen before and ranges from the startlingly personal to the morbidly hilarious — including one lengthy scene in a hotel room (shot by Dolezal) where Houston and husband Bobby Brown vividly mimic a scene from What’s Love Got to Do With It, casting themselves as Tina and Ike Turner.
“I love the intimacy of Rudi’s footage,” Broomfield says. “He shot with a teeny little camcorder, but it doesn’t matter the quality. When you see Whintey Houston after having sung ‘I Will Always Love You,’ coming off that stage, you suddenly realize there’s tears streaming down her face. And she’s looking into that camera. There’s an emotion on her face that I almost can’t believe.”
Broomfield, who often narrates and appears on camera in his documentaries (like 2014’s stunning Tales of the Grim Sleeper), decided to melt into the background for Whitney. “We shot some stuff with me in it,” he says, “but the film only started working when it was a very intimate portrait of Whitney. My voice became irrelevant. We would ask ourselves, ‘What does Whitney feel in this particular scene? How is this affecting her? Where is her head at? What is she going through?’ And the more we answered that and told the story subjectively through her, the stronger and more moving it became. We wanted to tell Whitney’s story from Whitney herself.”
In fact, Broomfield and editor Hoeferlin admit to getting overwhelmed with emotion while working on the film. “We both denied it for a while, busily looking out the window when in fact we were both crying,” Broomfield says. “I’m not often very affected in that way, but there is something so emotional about Whitney Houston’s story. And I find looking at the movie, especially the ending, to be an incredibly heartbreaking experience.”
Dolezal agrees. Despite all the time he had spent with Houston, the film shattered him by offering a deeper emotional glimpse into her life.
One sequence in the film surprised Dolezal most of all. “The long scene with Whitney’s bodyguard,” he says, referring to an interview in the film with David Roberts, a Scottish security expert who was hired to protect Houston in the mid-1990s and ultimately wrote a confidential letter to her managers, begging them to intervene as Houston was spiraling out of control.
“For me, the letter that we see in the film is one of the most important moments,” Dolezal says. “Because for anybody who witnessed Whitney’s tragic downfall, we all say, ‘Why didn’t anybody do anything? Why couldn’t anybody help her?’ To find out that somebody tried and was ignored is very tragic. It just breaks my heart.”
Whitney: Can I Be Me screens three times at the Tribeca Film Festival ahead of its scheduled premiere on Showtime this August.