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Why Whitney Houston Could Never Be Herself, According to Her Documentarian

We talked with director Nick Broomfield about the new doc "Whitney Houston: Can I Be Me?" and he explained why the public is partially to blame for the iconic singer’s fall from grace.

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Photos by David Corio, courtesy of Nick Broomfield / Dogwoof Productions

Having documented the lives of Biggie and Tupac, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield turns his gaze onto the tumultuous Whitney Houston in his latest feature-length doc. And — just like Biggie, Tupac, and Kurt Cobain — the artist in focus died too soon; Houston was 48 when she overdosed and then drowned in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub.

Whitney: Can I Be Me, co-directed by Rudi Dolezal, is made up of archival footage, including an incredible rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” plus behind-the-scenes footage from the singer’s notorious marriage with Bobby Brown. The doc, which premiered in Germany and is currently in theaters across the UK, also features talking head interviews with those who knew Houston at the time. Although notable absentees are Brown and Houston’s long rumoured lesbian lover Robyn Crawford, the directors deliver the theory that Houston was in the middle of a love triangle between the two, which led to violence in her marriage.

Unlike other docs on Houston, the directors made it a point to focus on her personal relationships in a way that would make viewers “feel” them. As a result, the various scandals that plagued the end of Whitney’s career are better contextualized and less sensationalized, and we come away feeling more empathetic for the artist and her inner circle. The film screened at the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival the other week, where Broomfield was on hand to talk with MERRY JANE about Whitney and why she was never allowed to be herself. It’s five years since she passed, and the music world still doesn’t feel the same without her. Read on for our interview with the director, and stay tuned for the doc’s US premiere on Showtime later this summer.

MERRY JANE: When did you decide that the heart of your documentary would be the relationships among Whitney Houston, Crawford, and Brown?
Nick Broomfield:
We start with Houston’s background and upbringing, and then we get into the relationship with Robyn in the way that it occurred, which is really primarily as a friendship before it became a scandal. When there is a scandal, I think you don’t really ask the questions about what the relationship was. With Whitney and Robyn, I think the relationship was an incredibly loving and supportive relationship between these two people that was incredibly creative and a real, true friendship.

As a result, the film is structured so that you feel that first. Then, when you get into the scandal of her being gay, it assumes an outrageousness that it shouldn’t. Why are people asking all these questions about her? Why can’t she just be who she is? This relationship felt completely organic. Why is she questioned in this way, why is she being assaulted in all these interviews?  

And I think it’s the same with the Bobby Brown relationship. We know that Whitney came from the hood; she’s from Newark and we are not surprised that she kind of fell in love with Bobby Brown because he came from the hood, too. It was a different hood, but similar, and they shared the same mischievous humor — you see that in the footage with them. You understand that Whitney is a real funny person, a prankster of sorts. They are both pranksters, and they are really amused by each other. There’s this incredible footage of them with each other, and it enables the audience to come to that footage in a way so that they feel [what the artists are feeling].

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The documentary is almost sympathetic to Bobby Brown, which I was surprised by. You don’t mention the assault allegations in the documentary, for example.
Yeah, because there was so much violence among all of them. You know, from an early age, Cissy [actress and mother of Whitney] would beat Whitney up. And there was also violence between Cissy and [Whitney’s father] John Houston, as well as violence between Robyn and Bobby, Bobby and Whitney, and the brothers were pretty violent, too. So to single out Bobby as the one violent person is completely incorrect, which is why I’m sure that Whitney withdrew the charges anyway because I think that there were a number of occasions when she beat Bobby up.

You show footage of Whitney and Bobby acting out a scene from Ike and Turner, which seemed pertinent because of the violence, but how do you see their relationship beyond this story?
It’s a bit like being an archaeologist and going into some pyramid and finding everything that you were being told was going to be there. I think that they had a relationship, and it was ultimately destructive because they couldn’t support each other off their mutual addictions. But there was undoubtedly a link, and when you see them on stage together don’t you feel that they had a chemistry? You almost feel like, Should I be watching this? Why don’t you too just get on with it...

One of the impressive moments at the start of the film is with the rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” which we see after the footage of the 911 call and her death?
I think that version of “I Will Always Love You” is so compelling. Not just because her voice just hits your heart immediately, but also because you can see that she’s not having the easiest time with the song. Some of those notes are a big reach for her, and she is taking herself through a lot of pain to hit them. You can see she is sweating, she’s grimacing, and she is pumping it out like some seasoned gladiator. She’s giving everything that she’s got, and that immediately pulls you in to admire and support her.

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It’s interesting the way you deal with drugs in this film, and in Kurt and Courtney, because it’s there, but you don’t put the blame on the drugs.
No. I think with Whitney she was so badly judged in her life and dismissed for being a drug addict and it probably represented this private space that she could go to where she wasn’t being judged. She was so condemned by the white audience for not being the American princess, which she never was, and for being herself, whether it was because she was a lesbian or because she was with Bobby Brown. I think that it got too much for her and unfortunately [drugs] were the only place where she could find peace. But in a sense we all drove her there, I think. So I think the drugs are a manifestation of all these other things, and I think to be judgemental is to make things much, much worse.

Did you try to approach Robyn and Bobby Brown to be in the film?
My enthusiasm for putting Bobby in the film, as he is now, was pretty half-hearted. Bobby in 1999 — when the film kind of happens — is a different creature than the Bobby Brown of today. I thought that having him now might just completely pull you out of the film – he’s had a couple of strokes, he has put on a massive amount of weight, and he’s into a different life. He is very emotional and in great pain talking about [Whitney]. Why do we need to see him talking now? What more are we going to learn from it?

Are you over 18?

Robyn, I was more curious about. But again, I think that you really feel Robyn in the film. She’s the heroine of the film. She is a major character in the film. Maybe she would have had more of an insight [if we interviewed her directly for the doc], but the other thing that you find is that people change between 1999 and now. It’s a long time, they move on with their lives, they rationalize their position. A lot of the emotion can sometimes go out of what they are saying because they are not passionate about it anymore in the same way.

I admire your restraint because you could easily have gone down the salacious route. Instead, you chose to focus on the story of friendships and relationships in her life.
I think all the salacious stuff really annoyed me in the films that I’ve seen about her. I just thought that it was cheap journalism. Not only is it disrespectful to Whitney, but it’s kind of disrespectful to the journalist because it feels like they had to do a story quickly and they didn’t really have time to come up with anything particularly original. So instead they put out the same old stuff and it’s really tired. I was sure that there was a much better story to be told here.

Why did you want to make a film about Whitney in the first place?
I think it’s because she is really an iconic figure and she is so representative of our culture at a particular time. She was one of the first black crossover artists, the first really successful artist who made this transition from the black division of the record business to the white division, and it is really a film about the enormous price she paid for being the first one who did that.

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"Whitney: Can I Be Me" will be on Showtime on August 26 and is currently screening in the UK

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