Whitney Houston’s life was marred by tragedy, her tale however is an unfortunately familiar one: a death from excess, not by toxic substances but from the fame and fortune of modern celebrity; a struggle for the right to privacy, and for a truthful representation and portrayal of who she really was. Within Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Whitney Houston's life lies a primary question: who was the real Whitney Houston? This question exists as constant background to the thorough exploration of the life and death of one of the 20th century’s most well known music artists.
A recent documentary trend has seen the use of archive media flourish as a way to explore cultural icons through the many cameras transfixed on them throughout their lives. In this way, these films become a collage of these individual’s image, identity and personality, and which breath new life into our perception of these people, despite their absence.
Early moments in Broomfield’s film set the tone for the sombre mood that follows. A crackling and broken audio recording of the 911 call to emergency services asking for help for an unresponsive woman is an immediate and sobering reminder of Houston's tragic death. This intensely private moment is then juxtaposed with a public one - Whitney Houston in her prime, centre stage at a concert. Here she is the master of her domain, although she looks strangely erratic in an uncomfortable way. Broomfield’s choice of these two moments is illuminating in its contrast, the latter providing a brief insight into her psyche of how she never completely lost touch with reality, but through the course of her turbulent life drifted to the edge of reality and stayed there until her ultimate demise.
Whitney: Can I Be Me is full of intimate and personal insights into Houston’s inner struggle and conflict. The title itself, presented as a statement, rather than a question, suggests both a genuine intention from the filmmaker as well as a yearning by Houston to be something other than what she was perceived to be. Houston’s struggle, as portrayed in Broomfield’s film, is more complicated than the glaring lights of fame and celebrity, instead going right to the roots of her identity. The criticism she received early in her career for not being faithful to the soul, gospel and RnB genre of music sparked an internal conflict that was punishing and which momentarily seemed to not affect Houston, but obviously took its toll on who she thought she was, and what culture she believed she was artistically defined by.
The juxtapositions between perception and representation lie at the heart of Broomfield’s film in both its subject and style. He resists making a critical statement on how the world represented (or should have represented) Houston, instead creating a portrait which examines aspects of Houston's life in a matter of fact and honest way. Her life emerges as a complicated struggle, and yet despite her fame and triumphs, an individual shines through that is both familiar and relatable in the contradiction as well as harmony of her character.
[Sean Parnell, Curzon Bloomsbury]
Whitney 'Can I Be Me' screens from Friday 16 June at Curzon Cinemas