Can I Be Me. Showtime, Friday, August 25, 9 p.m.
One of the very first lines in Can I Be Me tells you just about everything you need to know about this Whitney Houston documentary: "Whitney Houston actually died from a broken heart."
There are many things to be learned from that sentence, and none of them has anything to do with either its literal significance (of which there is none; she drowned in a hotel bathtub after a drug overdose) or even its purported figurative significance. The crack in Houston's heart supposedly occurred when Houston was booed at the 1989 Soul Train awards because the audience didn't think her recordings sounded black enough.
If that's so, she was a dead woman walking for the next 23 years. Yet she still managed to put 28 more singles on the Billboard charts (including "I Will Always Love You," 14 weeks at No. 1), make a movie (The Bodyguard) that grossed over $400 million and win 19 additional Grammys. Clearly cardiovascular metabolism is overrated.
Then there's the source of that quote. It comes from Kevin Ammons, a former Houston bodyguard who wrote a splendidly salacious biography of the singer after leaving her employ. Among its highlights: The singer had brutal slapfights with her lesbian girlfriend, who had to be bribed with a Porsche to not act up at Houston's wedding to R&B singer Bobby Brown. Meanwhile, Houston's father-manager was soliciting a hitman to snuff the girlfriend. And on the other side of her bisexual romantic ledger, Houston arranged to have secret photos snapped of herself being diddled by NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham so she could leak them to the media and make her old boyfriend Eddie Murphy jealous.
Not one of these things is repeated in Can I Be Me, which strongly suggests that co-directors Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and Rudi Dolezal don't consider Ammons a reliable source on actual events, just a useful guy for poetically grand declarations about the nature of Houston's life. And that is very much the core of Can I Be Me: a lot of absurdly sweeping statements from people who've seen way too many episodes of Behind the Music.
One of them says the key to understanding Houston is that she was "from the street." Actually she grew up in middle-class New Jersey neighborhoods; her mother was a gospel singer, her father an entertainment executive, her half-brother an NBA player, and her cousins Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick were pop stars.
Another insists that Houston was a civil-rights casualty, that before her "we did not have Beyonces and African-American female artists who can be at the top of the pop charts. … So she changed history for us, and she paid a price for it." That erases from musical history, among others, Diana Ross (five No. 1 hits on the Billboard pop charts), Aretha Franklin (13 records in the pop top 10) and even Houston's own cousin Dionne Warwick (10 in the top 10).
And then there are the members of Houston's entourage who say her marriage to the philandering Brown drove her nuts but "she didn't want to go against God and get a divorce." That conveniently ignores the fact that for the first seven years she was married to Brown, Houston was still involved with her girlfriend. And though I'm no theologian, I'd guess that in the conservative Baptist ranks from which Houston came, gay sex would have been regarded as way higher on God's hitbound-for-Hell list than divorce.
There's clearly an interesting story to be told about Houston, whose mezzo-soprano voice had the power of a pile-driver and the clarity of a bell and whose elegant beauty was gracing magazine covers as a model long before there were stories inside about her singing. She started out in the same gospel milieu as her mother, Cissy.
But from the very beginning there were signs of a schizoid divide in her personality; thank-you notes to God on the liner notes of her first album, but an ode to adultery among the tracks. By the end, she seemed to be systematically destroying everything she once was, even appearing on a reality show with her husband in which she bragged of her powerful defecatory abilities.
How that happened, and why, completely eludes the hopelessly unfocused Can I Be Me. Facts are glossed over or passed by in favor of faux-authoritative fulmination. Critical analysis or even narrative reporting of her musical vision and what shaped it are completely missing. (One exception: the revelation that the opening a capella verse of "I Will Always Love You," her monster hit from the Bodyguard soundtrack, was suggested not by any of her musical staff but co-star Kevin Costner.)
What Can I Be Me does have is considerable unseen concert footage from a planned but never made documentary of Houston's 1999 tour, the last before the crackup drew the curtains on her career. In one scene, there's a close-up of her face as she draws near the microphone. The drugs already have a hold on her; eyes puffy, wet hair in her eyes, she seems to be gathering her scattered faculties, and the outcome looks very much in doubt.
And then … that voice emerges from the wreckage, "I Will Always Love You," still strong enough to stop a truck. "Whitney's gift came from God," muses one of her backup singers. "So the only one who could mess it up was her." For once, the declaration rings true.