Sydney Film Festival Review: Whitney Can I Be Me (UK, USA 2017) is a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of Whitney Houston

In 2015 there was the outstanding film Amy by Asif Kapadia and following on from that comes yet another biopic that examines the life and all too tragically early death of a different powerhouse musical performer. In Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ we go from the beginning right through to the end of Whitney Houston’s stratospheric rise and catastrophic fall that was her life.

Much of what we know of Whitney Houston can be tracked through her stellar music career or through the tumultuous tabloid fodder that was her relationship with Bobby Brown. ‘Can I Be Me’ reveals some interesting truths both in her career and in her personal life. Growing up the young Whitney was closest with her father, and ironically dabbled in drugs at at the age of 10 with her two older brothers. Whilst her mother Emily ‘Cissy’ Houston became the driving force to start her career in pop music. Then along came Clive Davis of Arista Records who molded her to be the perfect mainstream white-audience friendly black singer, eventually going on to have more consecutive hit singles than The Beatles and a Grammy winning career. However this only served to anger some of her African-American fans and peers who booed her and labelled her a sell-out, and so the girl who was from ‘the hood’ in New Jersey found herself struggling to find her true identity.

The film goes on to detail Houston’s relationship with her closest friend and working associate Robyn Crawford and alludes to them having been in a bisexual relationship. However if this was the case, Houston never made it openly public for fear of upsetting her fiercely religious mother. Then of course Bobby Brown came along and the three of them became this twisted and complex love triangle as both Crawford and Brown supposedly battled it out both physically and psychologically for Houston’s affections. Even though Houston during much of her early career had still been taking drugs, it was the volatile mix of her difficult personal life, pressures from her peers and the industry and the physical rigour of performing that took its toll. And in a vox-pop interview with her former bodyguard David Roberts (the film The Bodyguard was loosely based on his work with Houston, though he admits he never got shot or slept with her) he reveals he provided a damning report to her management team regarding her excessive drug use and that it needed to stop, only for him to be promptly fired after delivering it.

Director Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) steers the lion’s share of this film covering the in-person interviews with Houston’s entourage and editing all the necessary archival footage to delineate her life story. But fans of Houston’s music will probably gain the most enjoyment from Rudi Dolezal’s contribution as co-director who was granted access to and shot most of her 1999 world tour and the European leg footage used here was from an uncompleted documentary. It’s in these live performances that you can truly witness how phenomenal her voice was. Seeing her belt out these enormous ballads to huge screaming crowds is juxtaposed against Dolezal’s candid backstage footage of her musing in front of a makeup mirror, looking a little lonely and introspective.

Broomfield’s documentary though isn’t without its suspicious elements, like the fact that there are no direct interviews with Brown, Crawford or Cissy Houston and that he relies upon archival interview footage to fill in some of his narrative. Or the fact that there was no mention of Brown’s 2003 assault on Houston. As well as only briefly examining the even greater tragedy of Brown and Houston’s daughter Bobbi Kristina’s early death at the age of 22. The film to a degree plays things a little loosely, by relying upon most of the testimonies to come from her entourage, some of whom clearly have differing opinions of what was going on.

Whitney Can I Be Me is a comprehensive look at the rise and fall of Whitney Houston both as a person and as a performer. Occasionally leaving you with more questions than answers, what it does show is a woman who was conflicted and struggling to discover her true identity when for so long she had been dictated to by some of those closest to her. But despite all of this, the greatest legacy left behind is her phenomenal voice and music, something that will live on for many years to come.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 111 minutes

Whitney Can I Be Me premiered earlier tonight as part of the Sydney Film Festival 2017, with additional screenings on Friday 9 June and Saturday 10 June. For more info or to purchase tickets click here.

The film will be released in select cinemas around Australia on June 15th.

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