Chances are you’ve belted out Whitney Houston’s song, ‘I Will Always Love You,’ or maybe even ‘Greatest Love Of All’ at the top of your lungs. Whether you’re singing badly, or not, it doesn’t matter. Because just like the songs, the reason they endure is because the woman who brought them to life had a powerful voice carried by a natural technical ability, presence and she sang with the kind of innate heartfelt emotion that can’t be taught.
So when I saw that the documentary Whitney, Can I Be Me was included in the programme for the Documentary Edge Festival, I was curious to find out more.
The film begins from the end of Houston’s life and the shocking news of her death (February 2012). It’s raw, immediate and the story reels you. From there it tracks back to the singer’s gospel roots, her relationship with her parents, and the inevitable journey to stardom.
Like many music-based documentaries this film stays true to the genre. Archival television interviews are interwoven with backstage vignettes and Whitney’s friends, family and colleagues pitch in sharing their memories of a woman who was magnetic, strong and beautiful, yet incredibly fragile. Some of the scenes are surprisingly candid and we see Houston as the woman behind the pop star facade through the eyes of those around her, including her relationship with confidante Robyn Crawford (above right).
Through Houston’s short lived 48-years she held seven consecutive number one songs and it’s estimated that she sold around 200 million records worldwide. But the downside of being in the spotlight is that she became a product of a machine: a manufactured construction that would appeal to the masses. Renowned for being the first black breakthrough artist to conquer a white mainstream audience she was forced to leave her cultural and gospel roots behind, only to receive criticism from the African American community who claimed that she had sold out.
Fittingly, the film takes its name from the very words Whitney spent many years of her career asking, in an industry that wanted to control her. Taking back control is her journey through the film, in a way. The documentary provides us with a special backstage pass to her life and the people in it.
Parts of the story are uncomfortable. But life is never straight forward. Enter Bobby Brown and the singer’s life begins to turn. Life in the limelight isn’t always as it seems and for Houston, a desire to step into her own skin and be allowed to stay there for a while is central to the underlying theme of the film.
While the format is predictable this isn’t just a story about an icon, but about the choices of a woman who ended up taking a back seat to her own life. From humble beginnings, Whitney’s path is carved out before her. Whitney, Can I Be Me is an intimate portrayal of Houston’s life. It is touching, endearing and heartbreaking…and an absolute must see.