BY KENNETH TURAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
The life and too-early death of singer Whitney Houston was a train wreck that lots of people say they saw coming but that no one was able to stop.
Dead at age 48 in her Beverly Hilton hotel room, Houston was as celebrated as she was gifted, and as clips from the documentary “Whitney: Can I Be Me?” demonstrate, her musical abilities were extraordinary. As more than one person says, her voice sounded like it came directly from God.
Co-directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal and playing a qualifying theatrical run before airing on Showtime, “Whitney’s” story makes for strong and compelling viewing even though it has something of a cobbled together feel to it.
Houston’s trajectory has uncanny echoes of the tragedy of Amy Winehouse, but “Whitney” is not the seamless piece of work Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning “Amy” was.
Aside from stock and home movie footage, this film is divided between on-camera interviews conducted by veteran documentarian Bloomfield (“Tales of the Grim Sleeper,” “Biggie and Tupac” plus many others) and never-before-seen footage of Houston’s legendary 1999 European tour by music video veteran and co-director Dolezal.
That footage has some extraordinary performance moments, including Houston’s heartbreaking rendition of “I Will Always Love You” from the tour’s Frankfurt stop that opens the film and lifts you off your feet.
Broomfield, for his part, was hampered by the fact that he was not able to interview key people in Houston’s life, including ex-husband Bobby Brown, her closest friend Robyn Crawford, and Clive Davis, the Svengali who began her career. So he shrewdly chose to go another route.
The director has elicited candid, emotional interviews with those who worked with Houston, including members of her band and her personal retinue. (David Roberts, her longtime personal security and the model for Kevin Costner’s character in Houston’s breakout film “The Bodyguard,” is especially frank.)
The bad times
Though stories of extensive drug use and sexual tensions can make the film feel exploitative at times, the gap between Houston’s enormous talent and her truncated life means that more than anything else the tale related here will simply make you sad.
“Whitney actually died from a broken heart,” one of her band members says, and that seems like it could actually be true.
Broomfield’s take, as his film’s plaintive title indicates, is that managing the ever-increasing gap between who the singer was and who the people who made money off her — including her family — wanted her to be, became too much for her to handle, a situation drug use did nothing to improve.
Taught by Mom
Though mainstream America perceived her as a princess, Houston was born in Newark, N.J., and, more than one interviewee says, “came from the hood.”
Born into a musical family (Dionne Warwick was her cousin), Houston was taught to sing by her mother Cissy, a domineering figure who was herself a Grammy-winning gospel singer.
Though singing in the church was important to the young girl, her two older brothers admit early drug use, and the implication is that she became involved as well.
Not ‘too black’
Houston met Crawford, who was to become her closest friend, confidant and protector, while they were both in high school.
The film inconclusively speculates that they might have been lovers as well, but what everyone agrees on is that the relationship with Crawford was a safe place Houston could count on.
The singer was signed to an Arista recording contract by Davis when she was but 19, young enough to be moldable by him into a crossover pop artist who was not allowed to “sound too black,” according to Arista executives.
‘Soul Train’ boos
From a commercial point of view, that ploy was successful, leading to more consecutive No. 1 hits than the Beatles, but there was backlash in the Black community, which culminated in Houston being booed at the 1989 “Soul Train’’ awards show.
“That moment was devastating,” says saxophonist Kirk Whalum. “I don’t think she ever recovered. When the boxes are ticked on why she perished, that was a big one.”
That “Soul Train’’ evening was also when Houston met Bobby Brown, a singer with a bad-boy image. Their connection to each other was undeniable — they married and had a daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, who died in 2015 of “undetermined” causes — but the film says he did not help in the substance abuse area.
Oil and water
More critically, as impromptu footage of them together makes clear, Brown and Crawford were oil and water.
Crawford was out of the picture by 2000, and that crucial support was missed as the marriage crumbled and the drug problem went unsolved.
As with Winehouse, despite all the money she had made for so many people, no one around her was able to step in and make a difference. A familiar story, perhaps, but always a tragic one.
Check Showtime’s schedule for airtimes of the documentary.