I’m no fan of Whitney Houston, but I was drawn to this documentary by the drama of her rise and fall and, knowing Nick Broomfield was directing, it was bound to be incisive. And it is.

He talks to a lot of her inner circle: the backing singers, some Arista execs, hair and make up, briefly to her brothers and her real bodyguard, David Roberts. Apparently her mother Cissy asked some not to help out.

It traces her life back to the ‘hood and the Newark riots in the 60s. ‘Nippy’ was younger than her two brothers. She was close to them and they introduced her to drugs. (One was doing smack at ten.) Her mother, Sissy, taught her to sing and she was a controlling force in her life, and we see footage of her singing gospel at 16. She also met Robyn Crawford through her brothers and she became her bestie and personal manager.

It traces her life from her first stunning tv performance on Johnny Carson and early success. She was managed and moulded to be a pop star. No soul or funk here thanks, Arista wanted her to cross into the mainstream. It won her lots of grammies but the booing she got at the 1989 Soul Train awards hurt her. “That moment was devastating,” says saxophonist Kirk Whalum. “I don’t think she ever recovered. When the boxes are ticked on why she perished, that was a big one.”

That was when she audibly asked ‘When Can I Be Me?!’ hence the film’s title. “She came from such a controlling situation,” says Arista publicist Ken Reynolds. “After a certain point, you can’t take it much longer and you crumble.”

Falling for bad boy Bobby Brown was part of her way of getting back to the ‘hood. The Bodyguard took her to a whole new level of fame, which she struggled with. “I don’t think success changed me,” she says in 2002. “Fame changed me.”

It pulls no punches. It delves into her alleged lesbian affair with Robyn. The hate between Robyn and Bobby apparently escalated into donnybrooks, and Robyn even won! It doesn’t skim her drug taking. Whitney loved drugs and Bobby liked booze. He was the nitrate to her glycerine. Her controlling mother was something she was rebelling against.

Her bodyguard, David Roberts, wrote a report to her lawyers (apparently at her doctor’s request) on how drugs were destroying her singing in 1995. He was sacked. His comments are the most telling.

The doco uses co-director Rudi Kolezal‘s unfinished doco of her 1999 tour as an anchor and there’s great close-up footage. It was a major turning point in her life. Band members could see she was tired. Robyn left at the end of the tour. Bobby kept messing around. Broomfield didn’t talk to Robyn or Brown, which is a pity. It lets Brown off the hook, but losing Robyn was Whitney’s biggest mistake. It’s why Roberts says there is no one person to blame.

It doesn’t gloat too long on her decay. Just before his death, her father, who she adored, sued her for $100mill. It crushed her. She divorced Brown in 2007 and died five years later.

By the end of this engrossing doco, I had a new respect and deep empathy for that young girl singing gospel. I could always appreciate her voice, I wished she had used it for soul, because she had a lot of it, but it seemed to have been ripped away by so many.

Con’s Score: 4 “And-Iiiiii-yeii-yeiiiii’s”

Con Nats – On the Town and Theatre Now

 

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