New documentary links superstar’s sexuality to her tragic death.
By Gregg Shapiro
Anyone who is old enough to remember their shock and sadness over the deaths of music icons Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison in the early 1970s is well aware of the history of substance abuse and its connection to rock and roll. Still, that didn’t make the more recent passing of Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Prince, or Whitney Houston any less difficult to bear. Houston’s history of drug overdoses and denials was public knowledge, and her 2012 death at age 48 (which some might say was not unexpected) left an unfillable void in the world of popular music.
The documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, co-directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, combines interviews with archival personal and performance footage to flesh out Houston’s life story, warts and all.
“Can I be me?” was said to be Houston’s favorite phrase. Unfortunately, according to the doc, she never got to be herself. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1963, and raised in Newark and East Orange, Houston sang in church under the direction and guidance of her mother, Cissy, who was also a gifted performer. But if there was ever an example of religion becoming a drug and an “opiate of the masses,” it was exemplified in Cissy’s “fierce religion.” Right under her nose, her children (including Houston’s brothers, Gary and Michael) were getting high at an early age.
As it turns out, drug abuse was tolerated, but homosexuality wasn’t. Whitney: Can I Be Me diverges from earlier documentaries by not sugarcoating the issue of Houston’s sexuality. Houston, who met Robyn Crawford in 1979, considered Crawford to be her “closest confidant” who became instrumental in her career decisions. They were roommates for a time, which led to rumors about the two. One interview subject states that lesbians are not talked about in the black community, while another says that if Houston were an emerging artist today, being queer would not be an issue. When Crawford was forced out of the picture during Houston’s tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown, drugs became a crutch for her. Even Brown thought that Houston would still be alive if Crawford had been accepted into Houston’s family. As one interviewee boldly claims, Houston “died from a broken heart,” not drugs.
Of course, Whitney: Can I Be Me also focuses on her meteoric rise. The malleable star was a perfect vehicle for record-exec Clive Davis’ “foolproof vison” to create a pop icon. She didn’t disappoint, beginning with the massive sales of her debut album that went on to win several awards and launch her career into the stratosphere.
The directors focus at length on Houston’s last successful world tour in 1999, which was a “turning point” and the beginning of her slow, painful decline.
Interview subjects include Houston’s mother and brothers, childhood friends, her bodyguard, musical director, band members, backing vocalists, modeling agent, drug counselor, and several Arista Records staff members. As music docs go, Whitney: Can I Be Me is from the same family tree as the Oscar-winning Amy. It’s a welcome distraction from the dismal and unnecessary stage-musical adaptation of The Bodyguard that is currently making the rounds in theaters across the country.
Whitney: Can I Be Me airs on Showtime on August 25.
This article appears in the August 2017 issue of OutSmart Magazine.