One year ago, veteran documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield realized that something was wrong. He was about three months into postproduction on Whitney: Can I Be Me, his new documentary on the life and death of Whitney Houston – and sitting in his editing room, he found himself “in complete despair.” In its rough state, the movie was primarily a compendium of experts and talking heads opining about the singer’s influence and legacy – a “journalistic report” as Broomfield calls it. But, he notes, “I wasn’t feeling my heart moved by the story.” The director refused to show the cut to the BBC, who co-financed the film with Showtime: “I tore the film to pieces.”
What it needed, he realized, was a radical shift in direction. “She somehow wasn’t in there,” the 69-year-old says from his home in Sussex, England. “So I switched editors, and we decided that we were going to put Whitney’s voice in as much as we possibly could. We wanted to tell the story through her eyes. And as soon as that was changed … I found myself tearing up. I could feel the spirit of Whitney.”
Told through a combination of original interviews, archival material and footage captured by co-director Rudi Dolezal, Whitney (which opens in theaters on August 18th and premieres on Showtime on August 25th) is still an intimate look at the singer’s life. But it also touches on the myriad factors that led to her death and a broader dissection on the intersection of race and marketing in the music industry. And unlike Broomfield’s other music docs like Biggie & Tupac and Kurt & Courtney, the director is never seen and seldom heard, letting the singer’s friends, family, record label associates and band members celebrate a life as much as mourning a death.
How familiar were you with Whitney Houston – and what was your initial plan for the film – when you started?
I don’t think there was much of a plan going in. I didn’t know that much about Whitney Houston; the thing that originally interested me was when I heard that the record companies in those days had a black division and a white division. One of the first people I spoke to was [Arista Records publicist] Kenneth Reynolds, who said that she was so very carefully manufactured to make her acceptable to a mass, white audience. I had never really thought much about the racial aspect of Whitney Houston at all, but it was something that went to the very core of what the story is about. Namely, that people thought that she was somebody other than who she actually is. They were fed a particular image. Whenever she didn’t live up to the expectations of that image, she was then judged severely. It was an unsupportable situation.
Reynolds talks about the public getting “Princess Whitney” and not “Newark Whitney.” The film features numerous people detailing how the singer was a “creation.”
That’s a very strong undercurrent in the film. She was supposed to just toe the line and behave herself, and got into terrible trouble whenever she somehow strayed from this image. Whitney took the easier path out, which was creating this little bubble where she could be herself and free – because she just could not operate within the parameters of what had been set out for her.
The film delves into her paradoxical feelings on fame and the idea of attaining a certain status only to see people trying to take her down. Was there an allure to that for you?
I think so, yes. I always felt that there was a disconnect between this person who was this staggeringly beautiful, doe-like, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly creature who could sing like an angel … and this “reviled drug addict” who became the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows. It was like, How did we get there? And how did we get there so quickly?
Her estate denounced this film early. Since so many of your previous docs focus on the process of getting the film made, did you consider including any battles with them in the movie?
I could have told the story about the estate trying to close me down at every moment, but I did genuinely fall in love with Whitney and just thought she had such an amazing talent. She had such an incredible wit about her that I just wanted to devote all that time to telling her story. [Having Rudi’s footage] allowed me to make the decision to chuck my story and bitching about the estate out … with great relief, actually. I didn’t want to end up making a bitchy film about them trying to close me down.
There’s an alternate doc that we’re never going to see.
[Laughs] I shot my conversations, for example, with Showtime. We were being bombarded with phone calls by William Morris and by the estate saying, “Drop the film,” you blah blah blah. There was a lot of pressure being brought to bear on me and the channel to pull out and dump it – and threats pretty much from the get-go before they announced their film. [Through a rep, the estate declined to comment for this article.]
The film shows the family’s disapproval of Whitney’s friendship with longtime friend Robyn Crawford, and you’ve said that they’re trying to “obliterate the memory of her from their version of Whitney.” Do you think the refusal of some members to participate in your film was impacted by its lionization of Robyn?
Absolutely. And when you look at the film, you can see why. Because she was the angel on her shoulder and it was only when Robyn left that things went absolutely out of control. She deserves that recognition. Robyn was efficient: She was the guiding force that kept it all together, and always put Whitney first, never tried to cash in on their relationship. She’s the heroine, in a way, of the film. I admire her.
Were they against this film from the beginning or did you have any interaction with them at first?
The estate has been a disappointment to me. I think, for example, it’s a terrible pity that most of Whitney’s clothes and awards have all been auctioned off by the estate. I don’t have an enormous amount of respect; otherwise I probably would have felt differently.
How aggressive did they get? Did they ask people not to participate in the film?
They were very aggressive. Kenneth Reynolds received an email and phone calls saying, “We don’t want you to take part in the film. We’re doing our own film with an Oscar-winning team [Last King of Scotland director Kevin MacDonald is working on a competing documentary] and we would appreciate it if you don’t take part. And we understand that you’re helping Nick Broomfield talk to other people and we don’t want you to do that.” Kenneth hadn’t heard from these people for 30 years. He was like, “Who do they think they are, telling me what I can do and what I can’t do?”
A lot of people who really love Whitney, a lot of musicians and friends – to this day, they love talking about her and remembering that part of their lives, because she was such an amazing person to perform with. People just wanted to carry on talking forever. They remain incredibly loyal to her, and I guess they made a decision that they all believed in the film that I was going to be making.
The depth of Whitney and Robyn’s relationship feels like the subtext that runs as a throughline through much of the film.
Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I don’t think you need to make a big point of it. People keep saying, is [Whitney] gay or is she not gay? I find that annoying because clearly [Robyn] was, for a long time, the single most important relationship in Whitney’s life regardless of anything else.
A different director could’ve easily gone a more salacious route.
Yeah, which I think would have completely undermined the film. ‘Cause what you wanted was Whitney’s humanity and greatness to come through. There was an ease and naturalness between her and Robyn. These were two people who met when they were teenagers. It wasn’t a salacious thing; it was just the most natural thing. The world made it a salacious thing, and it was the first question that she was asked on all these talk shows. I’m sure [Clive Davis] didn’t intend to do it, consciously, but he took this innocent person and made her life absolutely impossibly difficult by creating something that wasn’t that person. And then kind of expecting them to live it. [Davis declined to participate in the film and, through a rep, declined to comment for this article.]
What did you think of the 2015 Lifetime biopic on her life that focused mostly on her drug use and turbulent relationship with Bobby Brown?
It was an awful drama and anyone who does a Lifetime film is asking for trouble. Poor Angela Bassett [who directed the film]; what a thankless job she took on. It just went for a lot of the more obvious punches. The one interesting thing was that it didn’t just blame Bobby for everything, which a lot of the other ones did. He was “Mr. Evil” who “corrupted” Whitney and the more you talk to everybody, you realize that that’s so far from truth. To his credit, Bobby Brown took it and did not come out swinging and pointing fingers at Whitney, which I thought was pretty sophisticated and very much to his credit.
One bombshell in the film is a detailed report filed by Whitney’s bodyguard David Roberts in 1995 warning her management of the singer’s drug use and corrosive influence of those around her.
And he was fired for it. It’s true. Because there were others, subsequently, who tried the same thing and they also got fired. [Her people] weren’t prepared to stop the concerts and touring. She was so on fire. Those who were supplying her with the drugs and hiding the drugs in their vaginas were the ones who stayed with her until the end. And per that report, they were all on drugs, too. David Roberts really cared. He was punished for sticking his neck out.
What was the most surprising thing that your learned about her as a person?
What moved me a lot was that she was just so funny. She had this infectious giggle and you could just completely understand why her friends liked hanging out with her. And somehow that fun-loving person just got more and more trampled on. She was supporting so many people and had such massive responsibilities with this gigantic entourage that it just became insupportable. She was generous to a fault, and she didn’t really care about money until it was much too late.
What do you hope people take away from the film after watching it?
I think it’s a film about judgement. She was so judged. I find sometimes it’s possible to just write people off. We’re always looking for a reason to not give people a second chance, and I think she was so harshly judged for the drug addiction. There was very little attempt to really understand where this was coming from or what it was about. I would like a lot of people to feel that there was a whole other way of looking at this.