Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Whitney Houston opens in Los Angeles on the night of her death. As the camera tracks over the Beverly Hilton Hotel where the 48-year-old singer was found dead in the bath on February 11, 2012, the emotional voice of a member of her entourage tells us: “People say Whitney died of an overdose of drugs… I know Whitney Houston actually died of a broken heart.”
“I just found her story devastating,” says the veteran filmmaker who found the documentary so upsetting to make he still “chokes up” when he watches it. “She had such a big heart. It makes it so much sadder in a way that she ended up so alone. She was only 16 when she started getting in to the music industry. She didn’t have a strong sense of who she was. She never wanted the fame.”
Broomfield’s documentary, which the Houston estate tried to get thrown out of the Tribeca Film Festival, is a tough watch. Stitched together from intimate archive footage of the singer’s 1999 world tour (which would be her last successful roadshow) and candid interviews with people who were close to her, like Asif Lapadia’s Amy, it tells the grim and sadly all too familiar story of a ferociously talented woman whose destruction was, to a disgraceful extent, brought about by those around her. The footage by music director Rudi Dolezal, which languished in an attic in Austria for almost two decades, is remarkable. Houston giving it her all in every single performance, even as her voice is becoming ravaged by drugs. The goofing around with husband Bobby Brown backstage, pretending they are Ike and Tina Turner. The tensions between her, Brown and Robyn Crawford, Houston’s childhood friend who remained in her entourage for years and was long rumoured to be her lover. Broomfield’s documentary, though never explicit about Houston’s sexuality, clearly implies they were a couple, with close friends describing the singer as “bisexual” and referring to their relationship as a loving bond.
Meanwhile one by one, bodyguards, hairdressers, backing singers, drug counsellors and promoters from Houston’s record company, Arista, tell the story of an impressionable and increasingly vulnerable woman whose identity – across sexuality, race, and class – was denied over decades. The film is titled Can I Be Me? after a catchphrase Houston came to be known for in the early years at Arista. The answer, always, was no.
She and Robyn shared an apartment as soon as she left home and when she moved into a big mansion it was her and Robyn living there. But then she was called to task for it. There was this witch hunt
“One of my first interviews was with [Arista publicist] Ken Reynolds who [talked about] actively building this superstar and crossing her over to a white audience,” Broomfield says of an era when record companies had black divisions and it was not uncommon for music to be sent back to the studio for sounding “too black”. “These guys saw Whitney as a very valuable doe-like creature who just didn’t know what she was in for. Apparently for two years before she did her first album they would meet up every Friday afternoon to micro-manage everything. They aren’t comfortable with what happened. You could tell they were relieved to talk about it.” The decision to actively distance Houston from her heritage resulted in a backlash from the black community, who booed her at the Soul Train awards in 1989. “That moment was devastating,” her saxophonist recalls in Can I Be Me? “I don’t think she ever recovered.” It was also, tellingly, the same night she met Bobby Brown.
Houston was brought up in Newark, New Jersey, in a poor neighbourhood that experienced the worst race riots after Los Angeles. It was a tough upbringing, dispelling the prevailing myth that it was Brown who turned Houston “street” and got her into drugs. Her devoutly religious and pushy mother Cissy Houston – also a singer – started her out in the church choir. Her brothers regularly took drugs. And it was during this time that Houston met Robyn Crawford. A number of people – including Brown in a quote that closes the film – maintain that had Crawford been permitted to stick around (she eventually left after years of clashes with the family) Houston would still be here today.
“There was a complete intolerance of it,” Broomfield says, referring to Houston’s sexuality. “I gather that although [homosexuality] is quite present in the black church it’s very rarely discussed and still an enormous taboo. Initially Whitney was very open about it, people around her knew, and she didn’t feel any need to hide it. She and Robyn shared an apartment as soon as she left home and when she moved into a big mansion it was her and Robyn living there. I don’t think she went to great lengths to pretend nothing existed between them. But then she was called to task for it. There was this witch hunt. It’s deeply upsetting.”
Why wouldn’t Crawford particulate in the film? “I’m respectful of people’s decisions to move on in their lives,” Broomfield replies. “She has a new partner, they have children, and I think the years with Whitney were extremely traumatic for her. But Robyn encouraged a lot of the people whom we do have to take part in the film. And Robyn and Whitney’s relationship comes out very clearly and accurately. People who knew them very well and were around them a lot all believe if Robyn had stayed in Whitney’s life she would still be alive.”
Then there’s the question of why there weren’t more sustained attempts to help Houston come off drugs. When, for example, the singer’s bodyguard David Roberts filed a report to the family in the 1980s calling for an intervention he was asked to leave. Why does Broomfield think no one stepped in? “Her drugs counsellor says [in the film] that when Whitney got sober she started saying no to people,” he replies. “Apparently there was an entourage of over 50 people and she was paying for all of them: houses, schools, cars, everything. So when she wanted to start managing her life this really upset people. I think she was much more docile when she was out of the equation and just taking drugs.”
He adds that the Houston estate, who are making their own documentary directed by Oscar-winning Kevin Macdonald, have been “extremely aggressive” in their response to the film. “They took Rudi [Dolezal] to court but the case was thrown out because he clearly has copyright,” Broomfield says. “It was a very difficult film to make. The estate sent out an email to every single person who had ever known Whitney. People who hadn't heard from her in 25 years suddenly got an email saying ‘We’re making our own film with an Oscar-winning team; don’t have anything to do with Nick Broomfield'. It was very worrying and unpleasant.”
And how has Broomfield’s perception of Houston changed since making the film? “I was really surprised by what I learned,” he says. “Everything that exists about Whitney Houston concentrates on her meteoric rise and then condemns her for her relationship with Bobby Brown and her drug use. You don’t find a lot to love. The truth is Nippy, as she was known, was very funny. She had an incredibly infectious laugh. And I don't think people realise how deeply religious she was. Singing, for her, was about her connection to God and even when she was smoking crack every day she was still reading her bible. She was very unaffected and liked to hang out in her jeans, watch TV and have a laugh with her friends. She was very affectionate and wanted to be surrounded by people whom she loved. She was a simple person who wanted the people around her to be happy. The tragedy is that she could never be herself.”
Whitney: Can I Be Me? is in cinemas June 16