The oddly punctuated title has multiple meanings in “Whitney. Can I Be Me,” a documentary about the late singing star Whitney Houston, a woman torn among various factions and constituencies in a charmed, tormented and too-brief life.
Receiving a limited theatrical release in advance of its August 25 premiere on Showtime, directors Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s film zeroes in on those personal and professional forces that pulled Houston in different directions – exacting, in the film’s perspective, a devastating toll.
Dealt with in a manner that’s somewhat coy but not salacious, the personal component involves Houston’s extremely close relationship with Robyn Crawford, part of her entourage, who regularly feuded with Houston’s husband Bobby Brown. Rumors about Houston’s sexuality take on a different hue juxtaposed with a clip of her mother, Cissy Houston, telling Oprah Winfrey after Whitney’s death that she “absolutely” would have been upset to learn that her daughter was a lesbian.
As for Houston’s career, the filmmakers detail how her talents were consciously marketed to a white audience – a lucrative decision that cost her with the African-American community, where many saw her as a sellout. Those sentiments are illustrated when Houston was booed at the Soul Train Awards by those who felt, as a friend told her, that “the white audience had taken you away from them.”
“Whitney” deftly draws from interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and performance video that highlights the way Houston threw her every fiber into concerts, yielding a spare but sobering account.
As presented, Houston succumbed as much to exhaustion – spiritual as well as physical – as addiction. And the tragic nature of her death in 2012 at age 48 is heightened by a coda regarding her daughter, Bobby Kristina, who was only 22 when she died three years later.
Although it’s not used in the title, “Can I Be Me” frames an unanswered question – namely, whether Houston’s life might have unfolded differently had she been allowed to be herself, instead of being squeezed into certain boxes to meet the expectations and demands of an adoring but judgmental public.
Admittedly, there’s considerable familiarity in stories of tortured artists, with Broomfield having previously directed “Kurt & Courtney,” about Kurt Cobain.
In some ways, these films play like a real-life version of “A Star is Born” – a classic melodrama ruminating on the price of stardom. Houston’s enormous success – including a string of hit songs and breakout movie role in “The Bodyguard” – ultimately became a cage that closed in around her.
Seen that way, “Whitney” itself operates on two levels – delivering another cautionary tale about the price of fame, but also a tribute to a voice so big and buoyant that it continues to echo long after her death.
“Whitney. Can I Be Me” will receive limited theatrical release on Aug. 18 in New York and Los Angeles and air Aug. 25 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.