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Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’

Sarah Ward

A personal, illuminating portrait of a star struggling to reconcile living her dream existence and being herself.
Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’

Call it our celebrity-obsessed society, call it the need to discover that stars really are just like us, call it human nature: whatever the label, the desire to peer beyond the facade of lost and fallen idols isn’t going anywhere, and neither is the sub-genre of documentary filmmaking that does just that. Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ springs from a fast-growing stable of films determined to dig through the private lives of public figures, with Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger the subjects of other, similar, recent cinematic explorations. And yet, the increasing prevalence of such behind-the-name portraits doesn’t hinder this account of Whitney Houston’s career and demise from delivering upon on its purpose and its title.

‘Can I Be Me’ stems from a question Houston would utter as she endeavoured to carve out her identity as a successful singer; the feature it heralds unpacks just how complicated that process was for the best-selling music artist. Another statement, voiced almost halfway into the documentary via an interview clip from 1996, also exemplifies the film’s position: “Is there a misconception of the fact that when we become famous, that we have these beautiful, perfect lives, and that nothing is ever on a low? That’s a bad conception.”

Well-versed in sifting through the small parts of big lives, with Kurt & Courtney and Biggie and Tupac also on his resume, writer/director Nick Broomfield excavates Houston’s observation. Co-helming with music video and documentary veteran Rudi Dolezal, he does the delicate dance that is turning the expected components — incomplete yet still filled with minutiae they may be, and fashioned together in a standard manner — into a revelatory package. The archival interview snippets, to-camera chats with friends and colleagues, and candid backstage and home footage all relay a tale told before, both where Houston and other stars are involved. Combined in Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’, however, they paint a personal, specific picture of one woman’s effort to reconcile living her dream existence with being herself. 

As always, it’s not the details already splashed across the tabloids with frequency that prove informative, but glimpsing the pain lingering behind the headlines. Sorrowful, telling images abound, particularly in previously unseen, somewhat-grainy, all-access footage from her 1999 tour, her last successful around-the-world jaunt. Cognisant of being filmed, Houston smiles and sings, cavorts with then-husband Bobby Brown and even croons part of one of his hit tunes, and yet there’s no masking the gleam missing from her eyes. Everything compiled around these scenes only strengthens their sadness, and the film’s as a whole, chronicling her determination to rise to the top, the attention that came with her ascension through the charts, her off-stage troubles in her marriage and with her family, her connection with lifelong pal Robyn Crawford, her tragic addiction, and her inability to get help.

In situations where a talent has waded into problematic waters, the idea of separating the art and the artist is often floated; when a documentary attempts to unearth the person behind the acclaim, the same concept is applicable, albeit in a vastly different fashion. Houston's voice resounds as portions of her hit tracks echo across the film's soundtrack — including, of course, her rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ from The Bodyguard soundtrack — but Broomfield asks audiences to understand and appreciate the hopes and heartbreak she couldn't belt out a tune about. His examination of her life and death isn't exhaustive, but, in trying to show Houston as she was, Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ remains illuminating.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’
Directors: Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
UK | USA, 2017, 105 mins

Sydney Film Festival
7 – 18 June 2017

Release date: 15 June
Distributor: Rialto
Rated: M 

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay