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Can I Be Me? Director Nick Broomfield On His Whitney Houston Documentary
Lucy O'Brien , June 30th, 2017 08:45

The acclaimed director’s new film Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ gets backstage access and an insider story. Lucy O’Brien talks to him about the singer’s tragic life and the ‘80s music industry.

Every so often director Nick Broomfield applies his hand-held, investigative style of film-making to a music industry story, building a provocative narrative around controversial figures, as he did with Kurt and Courtney (1997) and Biggie and Tupac (2002).

What’s compelling about these documentaries is the way Broomfield places himself at the centre of the film as a slightly puzzled, frustrated character, tracking oddball interviewees with his furry mic down dead ends and cul de sacs, occasionally turning up gems and penetrating insight.

For Whitney ‘Can I Be Me’ he took a different approach. He had access to hours of unseen footage from her 1999 world tour shot by film-maker and video director Rudi Dolezal. The archive included rare interviews with Whitney’s personal assistant Robyn Crawford and her mother Cissy. Broomfield used these alongside original interviews with Arista publicist Ken Reynolds, close friends, and her longterm bodyguard David Roberts to create a picture of a sensitive, defensive, vulnerable woman. In a way, it is a more conventional music doc, telling a powerful story of Whitney’s childhood in Newark, New Jersey, her astronomical rise, and the complicated relationship triangle between Whitney, Robyn and swingbeat star Bobby Brown. It also covers her drug addiction and tragic death in 2012 at the age of 48.

What’s beguiling about Broomfield’s approach is his combination of awkwardness and singlemindedness, something that Louis Theroux has developed in his presenting style. It’s reassuring somehow that in person Broomfield is the same character on screen - thoughtful, chatty and a bit boyish, despite his 69 years. He has clearly been touched by Whitney’s story, and wants to talk about what he sees as her insurmountable struggles.

Your film has a feel for that claustrophobic backstage life – the hotel rooms, the dressing rooms, the tourbus. It’s a small, hermetically sealed world. And ironic that despite mass audiences, at the top level that world is so small.

Nick Broomfield: So small. And they don’t want to let anyone else in. They don’t want to explain their existence. Whitney had to sing her heart out to thousands of people, and afterwards she just wanted to slop out in a track suit or muck around with Bobby.

You haven’t put yourself at the centre this time, or showed the process of film-making. Why is that?

NB: For a long time the film wasn’t working. The first cuts had more of me in them, but there wasn’t enough of Whitney. The emotion wasn’t there. When we started putting Whitney into the film – her voice, her emotion – we saw the whole thing through her eyes and it became her film. It was very much more moving, and I became wonderfully irrelevant. In fact I was positively interfering with this film we were constructing. The BBC, who commissioned the film, wanted more of me, but I just took myself out completely. They said, Not only have you ignored our notes, but you have gone in the opposite direction. Then they saw what we were going for and were supportive.

With access to close friends and some of her inner circle, what were the rules of engagement? Was there pressure to whitewash difficult areas, like her lesbian side?

NB: Not really. I don’t think there has been a film yet with so much about Robyn. My film is a very accurate depiction of a friendship that started very young; these two were inseparable. They lived together and undoubtedly were romantically involved. Suddenly the media found out and harassed her. She didn’t want to deal with it and the record company I’m sure were, ‘You can’t be a lesbian.’ Whitney was very with Robyn. She had a loving, supportive relationship that enabled her to be as strong as she was for as long as she was.

Do you think her relationship with Bobby Brown was genuine?

NB: I do actually. I think she was very funny, and a prankster. She just wanted a laugh and a good time and Bobby Brown was exactly the same. He had a similar background, he was outrageous. She was endlessly amused by him.

In making the film what did you learn about the 1980s music industry?

NB: I think it’s amazing there was a black and white division, and a whole notion about crossing someone over from the black to the white division. That is so weird, such segregation, such a racially bigoted country.

For people who grow up in a place like Newark (which has actually got worse) it is so hard. The schools are terrible and it’s hard to get out of there. Whitney’s enormous success was a way out. Not only did she get her family out and her friends, but other people as well. She had to take this entourage of 50 people with her, wherever she went. She was generous enough to do it. Whitney paved the way for the Rihannas and Beyonces, but paid such a massive price for it.

Thinking of Whitney, Prince, Michael Jackson and George Michael (Madonna seems to be the only ‘80s superstar who has survived), do you think the 1980s music industry was a high risk environment? Was there no safeguarding?

NB: Some people were super together and had a real business sense (eg Mick Jagger, Bono). They had a vision of themselves and how to survive it. But it’s an incredibly difficult thing to do and I think they are the exception. They know what they want from it as opposed to being controlled by it.

It’s like trying to control a huge juggernaut.

NB: Yeah! I think although Whitney could have been a lot more powerful, she didn’t know how to be that person. Part of the problem was she never wrote her own music or controlled the music she sang. For some reason she remained dependent on the record company and didn’t really empower herself.

She was so young, only 19 when she set the template. Clive Davis (Arista A&R) was a father figure, and her mother Cissy controlled her.

NB: She tried hard to get away from them and didn’t succeed.

Do you think Robyn was her gatekeeper?

NB: She was, for a long time. But it was hard to be her gatekeeper when Bobby Brown was around. The two of them were so lunatic together; they’d do whatever. Their consumption of everything (drugs, alcohol) was off the charts. Robyn just about managed to keep things together, but it was difficult. She was the one who still had some influence.

It did seem that once Robyn was out of the picture Whitney was much more vulnerable.

NB: There was no hope really. Whitney left upstate New York to get away from her family, and went down to Atlanta to be with Bobby’s family, who were pretty wild. Things got a lot worse down there.

What surprised you most while you were making this film?

NB: How funny the real Whitney was, what a prankster, how down to earth. She was a lot of fun to hang out with, rather than this remote beauty onstage.

She could also be combative, particularly with journalists.

NB: Part of being a prankster is that you are. I’m sure she could be quite stubborn. She was opinionated and she clearly didn’t know how to deal with the press. She was her own worst enemy sometimes. People would ask a question she didn’t want to answer and she would be downright rude back. Rather than a smooth PR machine to pour syrup over everything, which is what you need, she would get really upset and outraged. That was understandable. She was a singer, not a PR agent. Past a certain point she became fair game and wasn’t respected.

She was the American princess who strayed. People were unforgiving and didn’t understand her trajectory. She was having a real problem being this ‘pop star’ person. She couldn’t find a way of saying, I’m not that person, this is me. She’d have to tell Clive Davis to take a running jump and disassociate herself from the record business. She’d have to take on her whole family. They were all making a fortune off her and having a very nice lifestyle. It would be a Herculean task to break free from that, and would require someone who was incredibly aware of themselves. She didn’t know how to take her destiny and make it her own. She could never be the big person. She became smaller and smaller, and retreated more and more. There was this fabulous person who had all these great plans, she was the New Jersey girl with incredible chutzpah, but she ultimately didn’t have that power, she didn’t know how to make that jump.

You’ve become known for making investigative, experimental films. What do you see as the future of music documentary?

NB: I think it’s massive. There is such an inbuilt audience for that kind of thing. They have to be told in a way that is different – it can’t be another boring old biopic. Music documentaries are hard to tell, but I think they’re an amazing vehicle to look at racism, our attitude to sex, the way we judge drugs. There’s the ability to get a big audience because of these incredible, iconic, charismatic people. You can look at a number of issues – the challenge is to make sure you choose something that has all those issues. Popular music is like a mirror of culture, of who we are.

Whitney: Can I Be Me is out now