Notes from Doc/Fest 2017: Whitney: Can I Be Me

Ben Booth writes from Sheffield Doc/Fest, the UK's premier Documentary festival, taking place this year from 9th-14th June.


Nick Broomfield's new Documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me had its first UK screening at Doc/Fest in Sheffield.

The film follows Whitney Houston's highs and lows over her 20-something year career as a pop artist and is one of Nick Broomfield's first steps away from the 'sound boom' style. The film follows her progress, downfalls and other problems as she begins to become famous, using mainly archive footage and archive recordings, along with much never-before-seen 1999 World Tour footage.

Broomfield's usual style of following people around with a camera is out and in comes interviews with Houston's close friends and mother. The narrative mainly centres around her relationship with Bobby Brown and the impact it had on her career and her personal life. As the film progresses, we learn more about her relationship with her close confident Robyn and how she influenced her tour and her life, to apparently try to keep her safe.

The film opens with an emotional drone shot of the Beverly Hilton, as the 911 call from security is played to the audience. After the opening we are led through Houston’s life with many of her close friends and family, but we also get to meet the people who moulded her career to how they apparently wanted her to be. We hear from her drummer and musical director as he explains how he had to sit on stage night after night and watch Houston’s back muscles move back and forth like a body builder as she quite literally had to strain herself to sing. The camera cuts to footage of her rolling her eyes as she winds up to sing the chorus from I Will Always Love You.

The film is a big step for Broomfield. It feels a lot more like a film that's made for the big screen, which is a move away from the handheld, DIY, feel of his early films such as Kurt And Courtney (1998) and Aileen: Life And Death Of A Serial Killer (2003). In these early films Broomfield uses just a cameraman and himself on the boom mic; one of many reasons people were inspired by him to make documentaries, including myself. If you are looking for that, or the controversial nature of films such as Fetishes (1996) or Sex: My British Job (2013) then this may feel like a step in a different direction. If you want an informative, intimate feel as to how Houston lived her life and how it ultimately led to her death, then this offers many positives.

As the film progresses you start to feel more connected to Houston as an artist. As her career begins to grow, the groups of hangers on start to grow. We hear from her bodyguard who stated he submitted a report on the 1999 World Tour stating that she was beginning to quite literally kill herself and the people who were providing her with drugs and other vices needed to be removed from her life.

The little facts are also there, as you would expect. One of the makers of the 1992 film The Bodyguard explained how the acapella beginning of I Will Always Love You came to be. Kevin Costner takes credit for that one. Apparently he approached the filmmaker and said that the song would be better if there was no music during the opening, a decision which has since become iconic.

Dogwoof are on board as distributors, and as I know from previous Doc/Fests they often bring out the heavy hitters here, which go on to big things at the winter's Oscars.


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