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‘Whitney: Can I Be Me’ is a tale of fame, money and selfish enablers

Documentary about Whitney Houston is also a romantic tragedy

Whitney: Can I Be Me, the new documentary about the beloved singer who drowned in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton after overdosing on drugs, is full of little moments that squeeze at your heart. There’s footage of Whitney Houston ecstatic after giving her all during a performance of “I Will Always Love You” and early interviews in which Houston is still earnest, bashful and innocent.

Then there’s the whammy.

In 1995, David Roberts, who served as Houston’s bodyguard for seven years and was the inspiration for her hit film with Kevin Costner, sent Houston’s family and business partners a report on her health and well-being from her latest tour. It was not good. Houston, Roberts said, was heavily dependent on cocaine and marijuana. Her voice was deteriorating. She was not in good health and needed to enter a rehabilitation facility.

They ignored him.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive,” Roberts says in the film.

Under the direction of Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, Whitney: Can I Be Me functions as a psychological autopsy for the woman known simply as The Voice. The documentary airs Friday at 9 p.m. EST on Showtime.

An opening voice-over proclaims that Houston didn’t really die from a drug overdose. “She actually died from a broken heart.” Houston had been divorced from Bobby Brown for five years when she died on the eve of the 2012 Grammys at age 48. This wasn’t the broken heart resulting from a soured romance, but one stemming from living most of her life with split identities. The Whitney Houston whom America fell in love with was not the real Whitney Houston, Broomfield and Dolezal argue.

“If anyone had listened to or acted on my report, she would now be alive.” — David Roberts, Houston’s bodyguard

For Houston to rise to pop stardom in the 1980s the way no other black woman before her had done, there were rules:

Don’t be ’hood.

Don’t be too black.

And certainly don’t be queer.

And Houston, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey, before her family moved to East Orange, New Jersey, after the 1967 riots, was all of those things. So it was up to Arista Records superproducer Clive Davis to erase them. Davis had wanted to turn Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick into crossover stars, but they were too established in their careers for such a pivot to work. Then, “along comes Whitney, who was so moldable, and she was the perfect vehicle for his foolproof vision,” former Arista executive Kenneth Reynolds says in the film.

And so Houston’s sound was pop instead of R&B or funk.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers,” Pattie Howard, a backup singer who sang bass for Houston, explains in the film. “We didn’t have Beyoncés. And any African-American female artist that can now be at the top of a pop chart — that absolutely was not going to happen before Whitney Houston. It had not happened before Whitney Houston. She changed history for us. And she paid a price for it.”

Whitney confirms much that had previously been rumored: that Houston began doing drugs as a teenager and that her brothers would procure them for her — and that she was, in fact, bisexual. When rumors about her longtime relationship with her friend, lover and employee Robyn Crawford began to surface, she breezily blew off Katie Couric in a televised interview. Couric had prodded, in the most polite way possible, about the fact that Crawford presented herself as a butch lesbian. Houston, smiling all the while, responded by saying Crawford was simply a very “tall,” very “broad” woman who played basketball better than a lot of men.

“Whitney’s voice broke barriers. We didn’t have Beyoncés.” — Pattie Howard, one of Houston’s backup singers

For years, Brown was blamed for turning Houston into an addict, but that wasn’t the case. These revelations may not come as a surprise to consummate Whitney Watchers. But for casual fans, the documentary provides credible sourcing on what Houston’s family tried so desperately to conceal. Houston’s estate sued Dolezal to try to stop the release of the film and lost.

Whitney doesn’t exonerate Brown from responsibility. He didn’t introduce her to drugs, but he also wasn’t a fan of her plan to get clean. He was jealous and abusive, and he and Crawford were constantly in competition for Houston’s affections, to the point where they came to blows.

Whitney follows the typical conventions of a music documentary, like those Andy Samberg so expertly parodied in Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping. The never-before-seen concert footage was shot by Dolezal after Houston commissioned him to do a tour documentary. It’s interspersed with talking heads from various parts of Houston’s life.

The difference, of course, is that this documentary is deathly serious. It’s about how Houston went from being one of the most celebrated voices of a generation to a woman whose backing band had to lower her own songs two registers because her voice had deteriorated so much.

Those who were shaken by the revelations Amy produced about the life, demise and death of Amy Winehouse will feel similar sensations watching Whitney. They both tell stories of clever, charming, talented women surrounded by enablers, not all of whom were invested simply in their well-being. In both cases, those enablers included their parents.

In a way, this film is an argument for minority artists to have more control over their careers. The record company apparatus is still necessary for many artists, but it needs to adapt to fit the needs of talent instead of making the talent adapt to its moneymaking ambitions. In the long run, that’s better for both parties.

Whitney lets us know: The demand for sanitized, postracial soothsaying from black stars as the price for success is more than detrimental. It will slowly, softly kill you.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.