Whitney: Can I Be Me?

27/05/2021 19:30.
Cert 15

Whitney: Can I Be Me, BBC2 — intriguing, astonishing | Financial TimesOne advantage of our current film selections being confined to titles available on BBC iPlayer is that we’re able to choose
some that might otherwise have been missed in the selection process. This month’s film is a case in point.

Documentary maker Nick Broomfield’s films cover many subjects and are always incisive. He doesn’t shy away from ruffling the feathers of his subjects and their estates, so this film might not have been at the top of our list given a wider choice. However, it has given us the opportunity to suggest Whitney: Can I be Me? – a fascinating insight into the troubled and turbulent world of the talented artist Whitney Houston, who faced criticism on multiple fronts. In customary fashion, Broomfield depicts Houston and her entourage with warts and all realism, as a consequence of which he was
refused rights to her song catalogue. He therefore relied on footage shot by co-director Rudi Dolezal from Houston’s 1990’s European tour, much of which has been hitherto unseen.

Dir: Nick Broomfield, Britain, 105 minutes, 2017.

Programme Notes

Whitney Houston was born into R&B royalty, her mother being choir minister and singer Cissy Houston and the wonderful Dionne Warwick her cousin: her Godmother was Aretha Franklin. However, having a salubrious family background does not necessarily lead to a happy and contented life and the pressures of a manipulative management did not allow Houston to develop her career as she might have chosen. Furthermore, her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown and the ensuing substance abuse added more unstable pressures which further derailed her career.

Whitney Houston’s untimely death in 2012, at the age of just 48, provides a cautionary tale for aspiring young artists.


Headline points from the Zoom discussion:

  • The film was an excoriating indictment of USA celebrity culture and its destructive, widespread drug habits.
  • It demonstrated repeating cycles of bad parenting
  • Yet another case of beauty and talent manipulated (mostly by men) and eventually destroyed, in the service of the ‘mighty dollar’
  • Much the same could be said about Billie Holiday 60 years ago or Amy Winehouse 10 years ago. I fear that it may be part of the human condition going back to Roman times and beyond. For each man kills the thing he loves, yet each man does not die (The Ballad of Reading Gaol.)

Other comments:

As a documentary, the film was atypical of Nick Broomfield.

I dislike R&B and soul music, so confess to significant bias (anti). Otherwise  a very convincing portrait of what can happen to young woman thrown into the mincing machine of pop, celebrity and moneymaking greed. Question: Who was responsible – parents, friends, lovers, record company agents, Whitney herself? (All of these, I suspect). The film offered little by way of redemption but was effective in showing how the ‘car-crash’ of her premature death came about

The film (director?) knew how to play its cards right when it came to making a heart-tugging documentary about the rise and fall of a popular singer. It rather tailed into family dramas and drug addiction rather than (foregrounding) her music career, which sort of stopped at the time of the I Will Always Love You recording for The Bodyguard. Diehard Whitney fans may well find the emphasis on her struggles after achieving great success in the ’80s a bitter pill to swallow. The film’s exclusive access to concert footage and key interviews nevertheless had an impact. Although a somewhat one-sided tragic portrait of Whitney Houston, it was an accessible documentary


A:2, B:4, C:1, D:0, E:0 to give 79% from 100% of those present.