Whitney Houston in Whitney: “Can I Be Me” (David Corio)

“Can I be me” was something singer Whitney Houston used to say because so much of her career was heavily crafted to create an image for the public. This painstaking documentary does its best to show you who she might actually have been.

It’s been five years since the death of the pop icon at the age of 48, after a long struggle with addiction. Prolific filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) has teamed up with Austrian documentarian Rudi Dolezal (Freddie Mercury, the Untold Story) to take an uncensored look at the performer’s troubled life.

Intercutting between family films and television interviews (including Houston’s infamous Diane Sawyer appearance), much of the documentary culls footage from her “My Love Is Your Love World Tour” in 1999. This was fated to be her last successful world tour. As the film progresses through her life story, it cuts back to these concerts to reveal her struggling to get through shows and the toll performing was taking on her body. Thirteen years before her death, she was already showing grim signs of her deteriorating health.

Interviews include members of her road band, her brothers Michael and Gary, and her former bodyguard David Roberts (sorry, not Kevin Costner). The film works chronologically through Houston’s entire life, covering major turning point. In her early recording days, Clive Davis of her label, Arista Records, saw to it that her music and image were kept “pop.” In other words, not too black. Footage with her and white male handlers will make you cringe at how they talk about her as an object. In a clip from a French talk show, she is stuck on a couch between two white men going on in front of her about how badly one of them wants to “f***” her. While as a young performer she accepted this kind of treatment with naiveté, she eventually hardened and became more controlling of whom she let in. She also hit the drugs much harder.

This film reveals every theory of what went wrong in Houston’s life and who, if anyone, can be blamed. At the 1989 Soul Train Awards, she met Bobby Brown for the first time. It is said that Houston and Brown fell instantly in love, but they also became instantly codependent. As her dependency on Brown strengthened, she forced more and more people out of her life. This included her longtime bodyguard Roberts, whom she fired after he wrote her a report expressing concern over her drug use when she OD’d while making Waiting to Exhale in 1995.

Also ousted in 1999 was her manager and lifelong friend, Robyn Crawford, with whom Houston may have had a lesbian relationship. The film circles back to this relationship several times. Perhaps Crawford, not Brown, was the defining relationship of her life. According to this account, Brown and Crawford were embittered enemies, and Roberts reports they physically fought each other on several occasions. (He is also amused to point out that Brown did not win many of these fights.)

Broomfield and Dolezal have done a solid job of remaining impartial. For every time the filmmakers feature an interview describing Brown as being bad for her, they likewise show him as a bright part of her life. Some of their candid home videos, like when they role-played Tina and Ike Turner from the film What’s Love Got to Do with It, are especially lighthearted. Clearly in these clips Houston and Brown were lampooning the tabloids’ version of their lives.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about Broomfield and Dolezal’s film is that they pay equal credit not only to her manager, husband, bodyguard, and family members but Houston’s entourage as well. The film keeps circling back to the rift between her and Crawford and also the intense religious fervor among her entire outfit. One backup singer says, “Whitney was created by God, and Whitney’s gift came from Him, so the only one who could mess it up was her.” What if, when she used to say, “Can I be me?,” Houston was speaking to a higher power all along?

Directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal
Released by Showtime
USA. 105 min. Not rated