At once moving and chilly, the new documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me tries to summon the life force that was beneath the music that Whitney Houston made, but the subject of this film kept her innermost self so successfully concealed, everyone in this movie can only speculate. The film, from director Nick Broomfield and premiering Friday on Showtime, begins and ends with Houston’s death at age 48 in 2012, at which point Houston was a burnt-out case, a hopeless drug addict whose life, as depicted here, seems absolutely miserable.
Indeed, misery seemed to cast a shadow over most of her life. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston, Whitney became a sensation while still in her teens and a star in her 20s. But the money she made was leeched away by family members on the payroll, her mother (we are told) was jealous of her career, and her marriage to Bobby Brown was — according to this film — always compromised by her intense friendship with Robyn Crawford. Her engagement with drugs started early on in her career and only got worse. Her natural shyness became distorted from the pressures of public appearances and interviews, causing her to deny people access to her thoughts and ideas, to withdraw even further. The challenges of fame yielded the subtitle of this film: We are told that Whitney’s recurring phrase was “Can I be me?” — a weary plea to be free of industry executives and demanding family members.
Broomfield has made juicier music documentaries with Kurt & Courtney and Biggie & Tupac. Although Can I is layered with previously unseen footage shot during Houston’s 1999 world tour by Rudi Dolezai — he gets a directing co-credit with Broomfield — the movie ultimately has little to do with the sometimes-beautiful music Houston made. Instead, Can I is most interested in exploring Houston’s sexuality and her drug use, which lends the documentary a tabloid feel. While the 1999 concert footage is interesting, there are actually fairly few Whitney hits heard on the soundtrack. I suppose this imbalance could be justified by saying Broomfield had less appreciation for Houston’s art than he does her life, and we should be content that he opted not to delve into areas where his knowledge may be scant. But the result is a documentary that is an almost unrelieved downer.
Whitney: Can I Be Me airs Aug. 25 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.