There are no words for the opening scene of Nick Broomfield's Whitney: Can I Be Me, or certainly none which can possibly do justice to the vision of Whitney's impeccable live performance of I Will Always Love You. Shot during Whitney's European tour in 1999, right at the tipping point of her career -- post The Bodyguard and just after the release of My Love Is Your Love, but before her awful, horrible drug addiction really took hold -- it's as much a physical performance as it is vocal. As Houston's spine literally constricts in order to make way for that final note, sweat pouring down her face, it's... well, it's just fire emoji times a million.
The extraordinary performance was filmed by Austrian director Rudi Dolezal, and is among the 100+ hours of incredibly candid footage that he was afforded when Whitney and Bobby allowed his cameras to follow them on tour back in 99. The content contributes to a rich Broomfield film packed full of incredible source material from the Whitney vault -- whether performances as a teenage singer in church, clips of that infamous Diane Sawyer interview in 2002, or a scene from Dolezal that shows Whitney's former personal assistant and rumoured lover, Robyn Crawford, leaving the inner circle for good.
The subject of Whitney's relationship with Crawford, alongside race, addiction and a destructive marriage informs a large part of Can I Be Me, perhaps as much an examination of the singer's decline as it is a statement of (hopefully) how far we've come since the 80s when being queer and black was absolutely not an option for a recording artist signed to a major label. Nor her mother.
Broomfield's film, out today, is kind to Whitney, refusing to dwell too long on her addiction, or unduly judging her as a mother, wife or daughter; instead, Broomfield tries to understand what factors might have led to her state of mind before her early death in February 2012. Although it often raises far more questions than it answers, Broomfield utilises a litany of credible testimonies, from former bodyguard David Roberts (who is quite brilliant), to tour crew, band-members, friends and family, they -- and us, the audience -- attempt to unfold and understand the life of Houston. What shines through foremost, besides her prodigious talent, is Houston's humour and warmth, which is keenly apparent throughout.
Broomfield's work has dissected everything from the Kirby rent strike to the unsolved murders of Tupac and Biggie. Known for his disingenuous, bumbling posh boy approach to his subjects, his performative style of doc-making paved the way for the likes for Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson. Although Can I Be Me isn't quite the conclusive post-mortem, it's a film that all fans will love.
You have been steadily making films since your last big hitter, Aileen in 2003, but Can I Be Me feels like a return, of sorts.
Well the film that I did before this, The Grim Sleeper, was a portrait of a black community in South Central, Los Angeles; pretty much a third-world country in the middle of LA. It's a compelling story with amazing characters, but particularly in America, [when you have] a black subject, forget it. You are literally having to prod people up the stairs to go and watch it. There were a lot of very interesting issues in the Whitney Houston story and obviously people are a lot more interested in someone like Whitney. But I loved making The Grim Sleeper. I guess I have alternated between doing fairly non-commercial films and more commercial ones.
You've made films based around big personalities, such as Aileen Wuornos, Kurt Cobain, Sarah Palin, Tupac and Biggie etc., and now Whitney. What links these famous, and infamous, subjects?
I guess what they have in common is the massive amount of interest in these very iconic characters. They embody a number of issues. With Whitney, you get a real sense of the issue of race and of her being the first crossover artist. Then there's her sexuality and drug addiction. I think those are the things that make it really interesting. It's less about a chronological biography, and much more about Whitney being part of our culture at that time. It's much more reflective of a lot of other things too, so you understand the context of what happened and perhaps why. I've always been more interested in that, per se, rather than the music.
The film feels very kind and non-judgmental.
Well I really kind of fell in love with her while making the film. She was such a beautiful person.
Some of the most powerful footage is from the tour in 1999. How were you able to procure that?
I spent about six months tracking down this guy called Rudi Dolezal who is like the abominable snowman -- he just kept vanishing. He obviously did not want to be contacted at all. In the end I got this intrepid archivist called Lisa Savage and she actually flew from Australia to Vienna to track him down. Then I came over and met with him. This was already a year into the project. I said that I'd like him to be a co-director, because his footage was going to make such an incredible addition to the film. Rudy shot everything beautifully -- you're right on her face and you can just see what she's going through, what it took to try and hit those notes. By 99 things became so much tougher for her.
There are notable absences like Bobby and Whitney's mother, Cissy…
I mean, the person I would love to meet is [her personal assistant] Robyn.
Next to Whitney, she's the star of the show.
She is a star. You can't help but admire the fact that she's never talked, because she was the first port of call, all the press knew her, she was the route to Whitney. You can imagine when Whitney died, she was the first call that they all made, every single network, and she never talked once.
Do you think Whitney and her were in a relationship?
They were undoubtedly in a relationship.
But then Whitney seemed to really genuinely love Bobby…
She did but I think there was a lot of conflict there. I think she was completely in love with Bobby. But until Bobby came along, I think she was happy with Robyn. I think it's amazing that there was this weird threesome between them. They actually got into fist fights, the two of them [Robyn and Bobby].
You aren't in this documentary, which is very unusual for a Nick Broomfield documentary…
You know, I did have scenes at one point but it really was a difficult film to get to work. I know it works now and and everyone's so moved, but we had all of these people talking about Whitney, but Whitney herself wasn't there. So we had to go back and re-edit the whole film and put Whitney in; her voice, her emotions, her humour, and make sure that every scene was with her. Films change enormously with you change little things; like moving her rendition of I Will Always Love You to the beginning of the film. You're with her from the beginning, aren't you. What a performance. You can also see that not only is she funny, but she's struggling too.
You started out making incredibly political films about working class Britain, like Behind the Rent Strike and Juvenile Liaison. What do you have to say as a documentary maker, and how has that changed over the years?
I feel all those things just as much as I did when I started. There are elements of Rent Strike when I was in Newark [Whitney's hometown]. Maybe making these types of documentaries, you do stay very much in touch with familiar subjects? You don't go off and do a job that's completely different to who you are. You're always building on your feelings and instincts.
You seem to have an amazing knack at drawing out even the most reluctant subjects. What quality do you think you possess that enables such candid testimonies?
I think it's just being interested. I think an awful lot of people aren't used to having someone who is really interested in what they have got to say in anything other than quite banal conversation. So they get into their inner self and they talk in an almost unconscious way. With Whitney, everyone loves talking about Whitney because they loved Whitney. The musicians loved talking about Whitney because they were transported back to that moment in their lives where they were playing with the greatest singer they have ever played with, who would ad-lib every song and who would just go off on weird riffs, and still be totally brilliant.
Louis Theroux interviewed you last Sunday at Sheffield Doc Fest for a screening of the film. What are your impressions of newer documentary-makers like Louis?
I think people are really interested in documentaries, they have become really commercial and there are lots of different ways to tell stories, we are all just storytellers. There is a real appetite, I think, for things that are real and that people appreciate that it can be entertaining and funny, and not boring. It's a great time. And there are so many outlets too; if you don't like HBO or Showtime, you can tell them to bugger off. I don't really know Louis but [the interview] was such fun.
What was the conversation about?
I think Louis likes quite dramatic, dark subjects and so he was very drawn to Aileen and Tattooed Tears and some of those really tough scenes. So a lot of the talk was initially very funny, and then a really tough scene from Aileen came on, and you could see the shock in the room.
Of all those incredible characters that you have focused on over the years, whose stories have you particularly enjoyed telling?
I don't really have a favourite, it's always easier to pick out the ones that aren't favourites.
Ok, so who was the least favourite?
Lily Tomlin was pretty tough. We didn't get to make the film we wanted to make, and then she sued us anyway. Sarah Palin was a really difficult shoot; I have to look at it again but I just remember it being unbelievably painful, being stuck down in Alaska for three months and never really getting the access we needed.
Do you ever see Courtney Love?
I occasionally see her around. That was a difficult film to make, but I kind of enjoyed it. There was also a lot of humour in the film too and I learnt a lot making that film. I don't think I learnt a lot on Sarah Palin.
What did you learn from making Whitney?
It's very different making a largely archive film and putting that level of emotion in and also telling that story through other people's words and impressions. It's a much more difficult way to work, more painstaking because you become familiar with so much footage and so many interviews. I probably shot 80 hours of interviews and then Rudi had 100 hours of footage. In addition to that, there was hours and hours of other archive. It took a long time and for some reason I do most of my editing in my head from 3am to 7am when my four-year-old would wake me up. I was really relieved to finish it, actually.
Have you had any reactions yet from the Whitney camp, from Bobby or her mother, Cissy?
They've been trying to stop the film coming out. They've made so many attempts. It's a commercial thing. Unfortunately it's always been commercial for the family. You know, they sold off all of her stuff, their timing with things have been very… it's sad.
Who's next on the Broomfield hit list?
I haven't decided. I might do another music thing but I haven't decided yet. I don't know. I'd love to do a love story. Maybe that will be next.
Whitney: Can I Be Me is out now
Text Hattie Collins
Photography David Corio