This documentary on the life of Whitney Houston, directed by Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and Rudi Dolezal, centers on Houston’s 1999 world tour. In extended clips from her concerts, Houston sounds spectacular as she sings — though one backing musician tells us that she lost her voice later on in the tour. In between the shows, and even during breaks in songs, Houston clearly appears intoxicated, but we can see, as she dances and sweats her way through her repertoire, that she was still a great performer.
Interspersed with backstage action and vintage clips of Houston on television are interviews with people who knew her: musicians from her touring band, people who worked for her label, hair and makeup artists, and even a drug and alcohol counselor. But those who were closest to Houston did not take part in the film. Each person interviewed offers a version of the Houston they knew, and their accounts don’t always match: The audience has to decide who’s full of shit and who’s not. When a subtitle tells us that Houston spent an estimated $250 million (a quarter billion!) subsidizing family and hangers-on, we realize some of them (who were also complicit in not intervening in Houston’s drug and alcohol problems) are the same ones telling us her story here. And just one person is unequivocal about Whitney’s twenty-year relationship with assistant Robyn Crawford (whom everyone agrees was one of the few in Houston’s inner circle concerned about her well-being, not just her fame and wealth): Allison Samuels, a journalist who never published that information.
Although it offers an astute analysis of how Clive Davis tailored Houston’s sound and image to appeal to a white audience — and how she went against record executives’ wishes to adopt a more r&b sound later in her career — the film doesn’t use enough of Houston’s music. Nor does it acknowledge that Houston released one of her best songs in 1999, the year of the tour. The dance remix of “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” is an irresistible, blistering rebuke to a cheating husband — who bears more than a passing resemblance to Houston’s husband at the time, Bobby Brown.
Whitney: Can I Be Me?
Directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
Screens through April 30, the Tribeca Film Festival