Review: Whitney: Can I Be Me
That voice. Sometimes a story only needs one special element to amount to something and Whitney Houston’s voice was undeniably special. But beyond the sound and the countless sales, she was a deeply flawed individual in ways that ultimately lead to her demise. Her story of humble beginnings turned global superstardom is almost compelling by default, so this biopic, Whitney: Can I Be Me, got something of a head start. And while it is certainly a worthwhile watch, there are ways it could have been more with just a bit more care.
The film opens where Whitney’s story ends, a 9-1-1 phone call about a 48 year-old Whitney Houston who has died in her hotel bathtub. From that dark open, the film traces Whitney’s life from her Newark origins to her marriage to R&B “bad boy,” Bobby Brown. Through this journey, we see multiple figures and learn about their role in her life and career. Her father, John Houston, helped manage her career and eventually sued her for large sums of money just before he died. Her mother, Cissy Houston, a singer in her own right, was the classic “stage mom,” who pushed her daughter to have the career she never had. As the story unfolds, each is portrayed as having varying levels of culpability for her untimely death.
As her career took off, Whitney’s lifelong friend, Robyn, was instrumental in keeping her grounded and in balance. As someone who had regularly done drugs throughout her life, the film paints Whitney as a person who needed positive guiding forces to stay on track. There were rumors that she and Robyn were in a same-sex love affair, which was discouraged on professional and religious grounds by those around her. As an alternative, she turns to the affection of Bobby Brown, which is when things go from scary to tragic along a long and tortured route. A large portion of the footage of the film comes from her 1999 world tour, which would ultimately be her last. These images are coupled with first person accounts from peripheral figures and paint a picture of a complicated woman whose tremendous talents were eventually squandered.
When there is a recent film that is so comparable in subject matter and aspirations, it can be hard not to think of it as the other side of the same coin. 2015’s Amy, the story of the rise and fall of British singer Amy Winehouse, traces a similar path of drugs and personal destruction, but there are a few key differences, for better or for worse. Mainly, this film does much less to tie her life and decline to the art she was making. This is perhaps my biggest gripe with the film. When it has the choice to talk about the music, it does so in a clumsy fashion and never really packs the punch it could have. One such example is the scene when various people are talking about her now famous rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” It was the perfect opportunity to highlight her vocal prowess, but the film just doesn’t seem all that interested in doing so. There is even a clip where a producer of The Bodyguard explains how they arrived at the decision to have her sing the first bars of the song a cappella, saying how incredible it was once he heard it. Meanwhile, the audience does not get these bars a cappella—we get them with people talking over them. This is just one of a myriad of odd choices that obscure the brilliance of the music at the very moment we are supposed to appreciate it.
The film also makes curious choices about what to include versus exclude. It is at once completely comfortable asking tawdry questions without conclusive evidence (see its exploration of her relationship with Robyn), but glosses over the (now confirmed) instances of domestic violence at the hands of Bobby Brown, which were arguably as instrumental in her demise as anything else. The film even makes allusions to the topic by showing Whitney and Bobby acting out scenes from “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” in a playful manner, but in head-scratching fashion, it never comes back to the topic.
Though, the filmmakers made choices I would not have, there is no denying that this is a richly fruitful story told in a thoughtful and sensitive way. It can often be hard to tell a tragic story for fear that you are casting negative light on those who are no longer around to defend themselves and their actions. But the final product here does little to smear Whitney (even when it appears she was to blame). Ultimately, Whitney: Can I Be Me winds up being an entertaining cautionary tale with just enough to recommend if you want to have a better understanding of one of the most tragic figures in the history of popular music.
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