There is no doubt that Whitney Houston had a truly incredible voice. Indeed, she’s a strong contender for being the great popular singer of the 20th Century. However, the last few years of her life and her tragic death have rather overshadowed that talent. The documentary, Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’, is partly an attempt to find some balance, putting the drugs and career problems in the context of her wider life and family.
To many the most interesting aspect of the documentary will be how it presents one of the key aspects of Whitney’s life as a relationship with a woman. It presents us with what is essentially a love triangle between Houston, her long-time friend Robyn Crawford and her husband, Bobby Brown. The film tries to confirm the rumours that Crawford and Houston were once together in a relationship, and indeed many of those close to her believe they were indeed once in love and are happy to say so in interviews. Although it cannot 100% confirm they were lovers, they were certainly closer than most friends, even after Houston had married Brown.
The film suggests that while Whitney and Robyn were in a relationship during the early part of her success, a combination of the fact it was the 80s, the pressures of her burgeoning career and a domineering family, pushed Whitney into finding a man. And while Bobby Brown may not have met everyone’s approval at the time (including her pushy mother), he was more what was expected for a pop star. Even so, for many years after Robyn remained at the centre of Whitney’s life, which apparently caused clashes with Bobby but helped keep Houston at least somewhat grounded. It was, the film suggests, only when Crawford left, that things really went off the rail.
That said, this is not a case of a lesbian being forced into the closet and having to deny she was a lesbian, as the documentary acknowledges she genuinely loved Bobby. There’s an oddly Charles, Diana and Camilla aspect to how it’s presented, particularly hints that if there hadn’t been pressure to conform to expectations, everyone would have been better off, and perhaps tragic deaths would have been avoided.
Can I Be Me isn’t just about her sexuality and love life though. It also looks into her youth, although it perhaps overplays how she came from the New Jersey ‘hood’, considering her family had a strong musical pedigree. There’s also the recipe for future problems, including the fact drugs were around her ever since she was a kid, she had a domineering stage mother who wanted to live through her daughter (and certainly wanted credit for her success) and found success at a very young age.
The documentary does perhaps go a little too far in presenting her as a kind of damsel at the mercy of a thousand forces swirling around her, often ignoring the star’s own role and responsibility in certain situations, but it does do a good job of showing the complexities of her life. It doesn’t shy away from either the good or the bad, touching on Whitney as a mother, the difficulties of being a ‘star’, and the rabbit hole of drug addiction. It also has access to plenty of great footage, much of which hasn’t been seen before. It shows a different side to the singer, such as when she was backstage at shows and when she was at home.
There will undoubtedly be many who feel the documentary is more confident about Houston’s bisexuality than it actually has evidence for (the only person who really knows is Robyn Crawford, and she’s not talking). However, it’s a makes a good case, and it certainly brings an added sense of humanity and a surprisingly grounded feel to Whitney’s life. It underlines that this is a documentary that wants to look at a human being, albeit one with an extraordinary talent, not purely sensationalise the rise and fall of a star.
Overall Verdict: An interesting and well-rounded look at Whitney Houston’s life, which puts relationship with a woman into the centre of the story without sensationalising it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac