The subtitle of Whitney, a moving documentary about the singer Whitney Houston, is Can I Be Me. It’s a question she would ask her producers in the early stages of her career. Having won a high-profile recording contract, the young Houston was carefully packaged to reach as wide an audience as possible. The songs written for her were aimed squarely at pop – for which read white – fans. But at the time Houston longed for tracks that reflected the gospel and R&B she grew up with. “Can I be me?”, this impressionable woman, barely out of her teens, would ask the older men marketing her to middle America. Put this way, the phrase seems less like a question than a poignant plea.
This sensitive, not entirely uncritical, documentary grows ever more poignant as you realise Houston was never able to find a satisfactory answer to that question, not least for herself. She emerges as someone at the mercy of larger influences and her own destructive instincts: a popular African-American entertainer dismissed by some black audiences for selling out; a pop idol whose sexuality was at odds with her wholesome image; a superstar whose substance abuse reached new lows at the peak of her fame. And all the while there’s her outrageously gifted, awe-inducing singing voice. And so it’s right that as well as reflecting sadly on the thorny complexities of Houston’s character, the film gives proper respect to her musical talent. This is most evident in footage of a 1999 tour (filmed by Rudi Dolezal, who shares director’s credit here with Nick Broomfield). We see her on stage singing I Will Always Love You. Whatever you think of that song’s merits, you won’t doubt Houston’s artistry from the close-up we see of her: taking a breath to belt out a lyric with the focus of a top-flight athlete, or caressing a note with feathery playfulness. The woman could sing.
It’s right that as well as reflecting sadly on the thorny complexities of Houston’s character, the film gives proper respect to her musical talent.
Broomfield interviews the singer’s friends and collaborators. And off-stage Houston appears altogether more vulnerable, much less assured. Mixing interviews with archive, the film charts her early introduction to drugs, the control her stern mother had over her (a singer who, as one of Houston’s musicians damningly speculates, was jealous of her daughter’s success), and her closeness to childhood friend Robyn (with whom, it’s strongly suggested, Whitney was romantically involved).
Robyn was a stabilising influence, as we see from her role as creative director of that 1999 tour, a protective big-sister figure always present backstage. But she had a rival: Bobby Brown, the rapper with a bad-boy reputation whom Houston married in 1992. There seems to have been genuine love here (home-movie footage shows Brown and Houston goofing about in a hotel suite – although, worryingly, play-acting the roles of Ike and Tina Turner, hardly a model for a healthy relationship). But mostly the marriage was ruinous: Brown played havoc with Houston’s already shaky self-esteem, and her substance abuse deepened.
As with Amy, another film about a singer doomed by drugs, I was ambivalent about the extent to which this focused on Houston’s addictive behaviour: there’s a risk it eclipses her musical talent. But nor can you sugarcoat it, and the final years are especially sad. It’s a sorry end, and while the pressures on Houston were immense she doesn’t look for self-pity. During an attempt at rehab, an interviewer raises the subject of her drug of choice. “If you have to name the devil?,” she asks, expecting the singer to cite crack, coke or weed as her downfall. Instead, Houston smiles, a sunbeam of sadness, pauses and says: “That would be me.”