There can be no denying the power of Whitney Houston’s voice.
Nick Broomfield’s documentary opens with the 911 call made on that fateful night in February 2012 in Los Angeles, and soon kicks back 13 years, to Frankfurt, and Houston’s gospel-tinged vocals soaring as she belts out I Will Always Love You.
The silken ferocity of her voice may be the major boon of this relatively straight, by-the-numbers documentary following the singer’s meteoric rise and shocking fall.
Broomfield is less interested in providing a doco full of salacious chat or indeed any major revelations, preferring to take the route of simply telling the story of Houston’s journey to the top from her beginnings in Newark, New Jersey, the role of her family, and how it all fell apart for her.
It’s in the unfurling of some unseen footage that Broomfield’s piece is more of interest to fans, and in scenes shot backstage of Houston talking to others or leaving the stage in tears that the doco gains its edge.
Focussing on talking to family members, using archival interview footage and moments, Can I Be Me? captures some of the control of the singer’s ascent, and maybe chronicles some moments that people will not fully be aware of.
The doco occasionally teeters close to hagiography because of the lack of depth. It’s a very competently put together documentary, that hits a lull midway and feels like a telling of the story, rather than anything else. That’s no mean feat though – and moments such as when Houston was booed at the Soul Train awards, because of her cross-racial appeal, demonstrate how badly she was hurt by the business, proffering insight into how her soul was splintered gradually by a series of knocks.
The second half is the more interesting as an increasingly sallow and drained Houston starts to manifest; the results are shocking and go some way to fulfilling some of the edges of this rise-and-fall story.
If you’re a Whitney Houston fan, this doco is a compelling must. But for those of us raised on docos like Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Amy which manage to take subjects and make fans of non-supporters, Whitney: Can I Be Me? falters a little. It does what it can with the material it has, but it simply doesn’t provide the emotional heft that it should.
Her soul was splintered gradually by a series of knocks.
This piece is competenty, but arguments that family and the times were responsible for what transpired aren’t really backed by anything to make them more than mere claims.
There’s no disputing the tragedy of Houston’s death, and while it’s best to concentrate on the legacy of the songs and celebrate the voice, Broomfield’s documentary hits some of the high notes, but, by missing the more personal touches, also somehow manages to put a few beats wrong.
Whitney: Can I Be Me?
Director: Nick Broomfield
Running time: 100 minutes