Can I Be Me? (available on BBC iPlayer) is an unusual documentary from Nick Broomfield. He’s known for films that are as much about film-making as the subject itself: he chases politicians and pop stars with a boom mic in his hand. In Can I Be Me?, however, Broomfield isn’t seen on camera at all and his voice is only occasionally heard in interviews. The subject, Whitney Houston, drowned in a bathtub in 2012, so there’s no one in this instance to chase – but even if Broomfield had caught her, he might have found that there was nothing there.
I for one have never been a Whitney fan. Her singing was acrobatic rather than melodious and her voice always reminded me of being given a seat in a restaurant directly under the sound system: you just want to reach up and turn it down. Broomfield’s film relies heavily on unused footage from Houston’s last major tour in 1999. Her performance that year was manic, and it didn’t cease when the camera followed her into the dressing room. Houston – beautiful, admired, married and now a mother – was taking enough drugs to knock out Elvis.
Stars, remember, aren’t born, they’re made, and the process is dehumanising. Houston was the daughter of a gospel singer and the cousin of Dionne Warwick. She was introduced to a producer who packaged her as a black singer acceptable to whites. She was possibly lesbian but felt strangely compelled to marry an idiot. Her parents became her employees. Her daddy, whom she loved more than anyone in the whole world, sued her. She probably hated some of the songs she sang. In moments of exasperation, she would say: “Can I be me?” And in one perfectly timed piece of footage – for this documentary is a lesson in good editing – she walked into her dressing room, put her head in her hands and looked emptily into the mirror.
So, this might not look like a Broomfield documentary, but it covers his lifelong obsession with the question of reputation: how is a reputation built, how is it protected and how does it affect the subject? In Houston’s case, it created a woman who could no longer be herself because she had passed the point of knowing who she really was.
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