Whitney: Can I Be Me?

My favourite Whitney track? The question swilled around my head watching Nick Broomfield’s sad yet compelling documentary about the life (and death, in 2012) of the pristine-looking pop star Whitney Houston.

I’m a How Will I Know fan, but partial to I Wanna Dance With Somebody (who isn’t?) and always liked her more funky side as demonstrated on I’m Your Baby Tonight.

You’ll find yourself constructing your personal Whitney playlist as you try to evaluate her artistry while the documentary charts her path of self-destruction. I wondered, as Broomfield sort of does, how the two were linked.

As is often the case, the footage and pictures of Whitney as a teenager are heart-meltingly cute. So bright is the smile, so gutsy the voice as a 12-year-old soloing in church, and so striking the bone structure, there’s almost no way she wasn’t going to be a star.

Did she want to be? There’s a suggestion here that her mother, gospel singer Cissy Houston, pushed Whitney to have the career she herself never quite achieved. But then something more interesting happens – Clive Davis, boss of Arista records, spots in Whitney the chance to create the perfect cross-over pop princess, moulding his beautiful young black star for success with a white audience.

That certainly worked – Whitney had more successive No 1 singles in America than anyone since The Beatles and I Will Always Love You was at the top for 14 weeks. However, it did lead to Whitney being booed at the Soul Train awards, labelled a sell-out by the black audience – an event one contributor recalls as “devastating” for a girl from the ‘hood’.

Broomfield might have been onto a fascinating thesis about race in music. It’s a spectre that hangs over the film, rather unexplored, although it may have been a motivating factor in Whitney falling for the bad boy of RnB, Bobby Brown. The pair embarked on a long spiral of drugs and alcohol which becomes, I felt, a bit dull to watch and a bit easy to explain away. We’ve seen drugs ruin many a singer’s career, most recently in the Oscar-winning Amy, about Amy Winehouse, by Asif Kapadia.

Perhaps the oddest feeling comes in watching previously unseen footage of her on a 1999 concert tour (shot by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-directing credit for the use of the material), in which Whitney finds herself playing arenas in places such as Mannheim, Leipzig and Vienna – how much further from the ‘hood’ could a girl get?

None of this really excuses the drug addiction. Nor can any half-baked theorising by the piano player, or saxophonist or even her bodyguard Dave Roberts, a former policeman from Wales, who rather relishes the sound of his own ideas.

The film’s clock duly ticks down to the moment Whitney was found dead in a bath at the Beverly Hilton at the age of 48, surrounded by the grubbiest of druggie paraphernalia. It’s sad, yes, but not as moving as it might have been.

Broomfield is a film maker famous for popping up in his own movies, usually holding that boom mic over his interviewees, as he investigates what happened to Kurt and Courtney or Biggie and Tupac. It’s curious and somewhat disappointing that we don’t get that here, when there’s so much more mystery to probe, and particularly when the sadness becomes really tragic with the death, three years later, of Whitney’s daughter Bobbi Kristina, who we’ve seen as a little girl jumping about on stage with her Mom during that 1999 tour.

So instead I found myself compiling that playlist, wishing there were more songs included in the film – and also trying not to belt out that big key change chorus of “and I -y- I…”  right in the middle of the critics’ screening.

I’m not sure Whitney was a game-changing, era-defining artist, although maybe she did pave the way for Mariah, Beyonce and countless warblers and belters on TV talent shows. She had a gorgeous, well-trained voice but her cultural impact doesn’t resonate through the ages and the film, as its questioning title suggests, can’t quite nail her. One of her biggest hits, of course, was So Emotional. Packed as it might be with opinions, this cold-eyed movie could have done with the rawness of more of that.

Featured image credit: David Corio

Leave a Reply