I think I’ve put off watching Nick Broomfield’s Whitney Houston documentary “Can I Be Me” since it was first made available. Now it’s coming to Showtime, so I’ve given it a good hard look.
Broomfield is an excellent filmmaker but he was stymied here by Whitney’s estate (meaning the Houstons, especially sister in law Pat) and Arista Records. He had to go on the fringes to put together a story since all the primary people were told not to speak to him.
Still, even as “Can I Be Me” scratches the surface of Whitney’s tragic life, let’s give Broomfield credit: he got some unseen footage, he got Whitney’s personal assistant, Mary, who found her in the bathtub; and a few minor characters who knew Whitney later in life or on the road. He got one of her brothers to admit he’d been doing drugs since he was 10. The inference is that the brothers got her into drugs, and led Bobby Brown into them. I do think that’s right.
“Can I Be Me” tries hard to get to the bottom of Whitney’s relationship with Robyn Crawford. But Crawford wasn’t talking, so Broomfield is left to ask a Greek chorus of outsiders to figure it out. That relationship is like mercury, however. No one can get a hold of it. Was Whitney gay? Bi? Does it matter? I’d say we still have no answers.
I met Whitney when she was pretty new to her career, and I knew her til the end. I wrote the first real cover story of her for a mainstream magazine in 1989. I met Robyn in her basketball shorts. I was very friendly with Whitney’s family members. I knew her when her other sister-in-law, Donna, was running Nippy Inc. I knew her… let’s just say a long time ago. I was in the Beverly Hilton when they called the ambulances and police.
I have a deep fondness for Whitney, I always did. When things started to go bad, and I had to write about it, it broke my heart. Broomfield’s movie is light on detail and motivation. I have my own ideas of who and what brought her down. (Those details are for another time.) Certainly by the time Whitney had her disasters with the Oscars and the Grammys in later years, and had odd appearances at Clive Davis’s Grammy dinners, everyone knew what was going on. It was very upsetting.
What’s missing from Broomfield’s film: the huge effort that went into saving Whitney’s life by Davis and others around her. There was a very good drug counselor (not in the movie) who almost did save her. There were a lot of forces around her that are not explored her, forces that added to the troubles.
Broomfield has to come up with a working theory, so he says Whitney was closer to her father, John Houston, than her mother, Cissy. I disagree. I knew them both (and still know Cissy, whom I respect). Cissy is the heart of that family. She and Whitney were bonded closely. Whitney told me in 1989 about her disappointments with her father– I will never forget that. And I really liked John Houston. But he hurt the family, and some of the wounds were ones Whitney always carried with her.
So, as for “Can I Be Me?”: it’s like a very good introduction. But it’s far from the real story of what happened to Whitney Houston. Far from it.
PS I took the picture that accompanies this article when Whitney performed, for the last time, at Clive’s 2009 pre-Grammy party. She put on a damn good show. Her voice was excellent. She pushed herself, but she pulled it off. It was a far cry from the year before, when she arrived stoned. But that February 2009 show was so good, it was hard to believe three years later to the day that she died. It’s still a shock.