Nick Broomfield has a confession to make. ‘I was not a Whitney Houston fan.’ Big deal you might think. Except he’s just made a documentary about the tragic singer, who was found dead in a bathtub in her hotel room. She was 48. But the acclaimed filmmaker was intrigued by her death, and sensed there was a story to tell beyond the lurid tabloid headlines about America’s princess – as she was known – whose fall from grace was sparked by a torrid romance with Bobby Brown and an addiction to drugs.
‘I just remember her being incredibly beautiful and she was everywhere,’ he says. ‘Then she sort of disappeared. Everyone was talking about her being a drug addict and this awful relationship she had with Bobby Brown. Then she was dead. It just felt like a mystery to me. This weird disconnect. I thought there must be something else there without knowing what that was.’
While Broomfield may not have been a fan, millions were. With hits like ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, ‘How Will I Know’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’, Houston remains one of the best-selling musicians of all time with more than 200 million records sold worldwide. In 2009, she was named the most-awarded female artist ever. She was the first black singer to crossover successfully into the mainstream pop industry, paving the way for acts like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Jennifer Hudson.
But her fame came at a price and Whitney: Can I Be Me documents how it set her up for a lifelong struggle to reclaim her true self. Discovered by legendary producer Clive Davis as a teenager and signed to Arista Records, Houston was groomed and packaged to appeal to a white audience. It was an effective formula, which won her countless number ones.
But the turning point came in 1989 at the Soul Train Awards. The singer was crushed when she was booed by a black crowd, who saw her as a sell out. ‘That moment was devastating,’ collaborator Kirk Whalum says in the film. ‘I don’t think she ever recovered. When the boxes are ticked on why she perished, that was a big one.’ That same night, she met bad boy rapper Brown.
Broomfield says: ‘She was so young and didn’t really know exactly who she was at 16, 17. I mean, who does? The record company saw her as being so mouldable, so she was moulded into this American princess, who was related to Dionne Warwick. But she was really this kid nicknamed Nippy, who was very funny and a big prankster. She had this incredibly infectious laugh. She came from this very poor area called Newark, which had terrible race riots [in the 60s]. Somehow she then had to become this Whitney Houston.
‘Nippy came from a gospel choir and loved R‘n’B music. The record company made her sing pop music to appeal to a white audience and took all the gospel and R‘n’B out. As they said anything that sounded too black was sent back to the studio. She was incredibly successful but then it caught up with her.’
His film picks through the gossip and rumours to deliver a well-balanced portrayal of a sweet and caring woman who was ultimately torn apart by the pressure from those around her to conform and keep churning out the money. Broomfield teamed up with music video director Rudi Dolezal, who had a treasure trove of unreleased footage shot for a documentary that was never finished about Houston’s 1999 tour. That included interviews with the singer’s mother, Cissy, and her family, who tried to block Whitney: Can I Be Me from coming out.
While Brown is widely seen as the man who got her into drugs, the film reveals it was actually her brothers Gary and Michael. Growing up in their ‘hood’, the siblings would party with friends and some cocaine. Whitney was, in fact, already an addict long before she met her husband and was the one who introduced him to narcotics, while he got her into booze. Just like their relationship, the two put together were a toxic mix.
Brown was no angel and their 15-year marriage was plagued by allegations of infidelity and domestic abuse. Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina, died at the age of 22 from lobar pneumonia brought on by drugs intoxication and water immersion – her body was discovered in a bathtub just like Whitney’s, three years after her mother’s death.
In the film, Brown is seen as a serial cheat, who grinds away at Houston’s fragile self-esteem. Broomfield explains: ‘I think their relationship was one of fun and probably very sexual. When you see them on stage there’s an amazing sexual energy. You can see they really enjoy each other. They’re like kids together. He obviously loved her too.
‘It’s puzzling that he was such a philanderer, but I think he was so much younger than her and he probably hadn’t finished playing around. It was probably difficult for him to be Mr Whitney Houston. His own career wasn’t doing so well. He probably wasn’t always that kind to her. She continuously put him first and made enormous sacrifices for him.’
While the rapper certainly doesn’t get off lightly, the main finger of blame for Houston’s death doesn’t point at him, but her own family. Most of them were bankrolled by the singer, who bought them houses and cars. The documentary reveals David Roberts, who was Houston’s personal bodyguard from 1988 to 1995, filed a report to her relatives claiming her drug use had spiralled out of control in a last-ditch attempt to save her. He was sacked soon after.
Broomfield says: ‘If you’re on the payroll and your whole lifestyle is being supported by this person, it’s hard for you to be objective about them without probably putting your interests first.’
The documentary also addresses rumours that Houston was bisexual and enjoyed a lesbian relationship with her long-term friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, who became her closest confidante during her career, until the media started digging around about their friendship and her family made their disapproval clear.
‘I wanted to portray it in the least sensational way,’ says Broomfield. ‘What you see in the film is a friendship first of all that started very young. They met when Whitney was 16 and she was still at school. I think she was persecuted for this relationship. From being very open about it initially, she had to become very defensive. In the film you see and feel how much love there was between them. How much of an angel Robyn was for Whitney. I think they had a magical relationship, which went on a really long time and for quite a number of years after Whitney married Bobby Brown. It wasn’t that it just disappeared.’
There were rumours Houston married Brown to kill the lesbian rumours and the film makes no bones about how much the love rivals hated each other. So much so they even came to blows once or twice – with Bobby losing. Loyal Crawford, who is depicted as a much-needed stabilising influence, stayed with the singer for several more years after she got hitched but eventually withdrew from Whitney’s life. It was at this point that the singer started to go off the rails. After her death, Brown even said that his ex-wife would probably still be alive if Robyn had been accepted by her family.
Broomfield says: ‘I thought that was a really generous statement from him. He and Robyn obviously had their conflict. Talking to other people too, like [gospel singer] Pattie Howard, who was very close to Whitney, suggested that if she had been surrounded by some of her real close friends [things would have been different]. But, of course, she had isolated herself. She had pushed people away. She was so ridiculed in the American press that it was very difficult for her.’
In the documentary one of Whitney’s friends claims she died of a broken heart. Nick agrees, speculating it was her own kindness that killed her. ‘She only tried to make people happy. She was a very generous person. She just retreated more and more into drugs. That was a private space that she could inhabit where she was OK and then, of course, she was judged so harshly for that too. It just got worse and worse. It kind of goes back to Nippy, and Whitney never being able to be herself. Can I be me was something she could not be.’