Nick Broomfield on his damning Whitney Houston film: 'She had very little control over her life'

The director spoke to the bodyguards, backup singers, hairdressers and promoters who formed the star’s inner circle. The result is a tragic, uncompromising portrait of a woman forced to conceal her true self

The title of Nick Broomfield’s new documentary about Whitney Houston echoes a question she often asked herself: “Can I be me?” Apparently, she often could not. According to Broomfield’s damning film, Houston had to repress her true self throughout much of her life, due to a perfect storm of factors, which included her controlling mother, Cissy Houston; her pushy record company, Arista; her co-dependent husband, Bobby Brown; her conflicted sexuality; and the mountain of drugs she used to blot all of that out.

“Having to be someone else – to play the ‘Whitney character’ – was something that became impossibly difficult,” says Broomfield. “From an early age, she had very little control over her life.”

Whitney: Can I Be Me? – which has its premiere at the Tribeca film festival this week – pivots on a wealth of frank interviews with backup singers, hairdressers, bodyguards and marketing people, all of whom had intimate knowledge of the star’s off-stage life. The film also features footage shot by music video director Rudi Dolezal for a never-completed documentary about Houston’s 1999 tour. That turned out to be her last successful roadshow before her death, in 2012, at the age of 48.

While Houston performs with power and aplomb in most of the live footage, observers say she was already showing signs of the damage to come. Members of her band mention problems with her singing going back to the 1980s. “Her voice was already being compromised by the amount of drugs she was taking,” Broomfield says.

Director Nick Broomfield.
‘She was buying them all cars and houses, and paying for their education’ … Nick Broomfield. Photograph: Erik Tanner/Getty Images

Houston’s brothers talk about their own use of heroin as pre-adolescents, and the milieu of drugs that surrounded the singer. They aren’t specific, however, about what the singer herself took while growing up. “Crack started in the 80s – it was around her,” Broomfield says. “And there was coke. People talk about the marijuana.”

Such things were commonplace in Houston’s birthplace of Newark, New Jersey, an area that never recovered from the riots of the 1960s, when the singer was a child. The film highlights the rough nature of that neighbourhood – and of East Orange, to where her family later moved – in order to refute the notion Houston only turned “street” after she hooked up with Bobby Brown. “She came from the hood,” says Doug Daniel, an Arista promoter.

It was Arista boss Clive Davis’s mission to erase that past so they could create a pristine and consciously bland image for Houston as a pop princess. Broomfield believes one of the reasons Arista’s marketing people spoke to him so freely about the consequences of her stiff image was that they “felt guilty” about how she had been manipulated: “As one of them says, she was so mouldable. She had no idea what was happening.”

On the other hand, her treatment does reflect the music-business sensibility of the 1980s, when major labels still had “black music departments”. Only artists who had been “whitened”, or turned “pop”, could “cross over” – notions that seem startling in the more enlightened era of Beyoncé. In Houston’s day, the rules of crossing over applied so strictly that, Broomfield claims, Arista lightened her skin tone in certain publicity shots. “That became an enormous issue for her,” he says. “Same went for the music. Anything that was too ‘black-sounding’ was sent back to the studio.”

The result created a backlash in the black community, which later erupted into an ugly scene at the Soul Train awards in 1989. After Houston was called for an award, the crowd booed her. “That moment was devastating,” says saxophonist Kirk Whalum. “I don’t think she ever recovered. When the boxes are ticked on why she perished, that was a big one.”

Worse, observers say, her mother actually encouraged this image management. “She came from such a controlling situation,” says Arista publicist Ken Reynolds. “After a certain point, you can’t take it much longer and you crumble.”

Houston also had a huge financial burden. “She had to support not only her family, but her friends and their friends,” Broomfield says. “That’s where all her money went. People say she spent it on drugs, but it’s impossible to spend that amount on drugs. She was buying them all cars and houses, and paying for their education. That’s an enormous drain. At the same time, she was being disapproved of by her mother for who she was.”

Witnesses in the film stress that Cissy never approved of Houston’s relationship with her closest friend from childhood, Robyn Crawford, who played a long and crucial role in her career. In the film, confidants describe Houston’s sexual orientation in a variety of ways. One refers to her as gay, while another labels her bisexual. Broomfield hedges about the extent to which the relationship with Crawford was sexual. Regardless, he says: “It was a very, very positive relationship in terms of supporting Whitney, and making her feel like there was someone there for her completely.”

The tightness of their bond irked Cissy who, for a long period, had to go through Crawford to speak to her daughter. The situation frustrated Bobby Brown so much that it caused him and Crawford to come to blows. In the film, Houston’s bodyguard David Roberts recalls a scene in which Crawford got the better of Brown in a brawl.

Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown in 1993.
Boos and brawls … Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown in 1993. Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage

There is also footage from the 1999 tour capturing the tension between the two, which eventually led to Crawford retreating from Houston’s life. Observers say that’s when the star went off the rails. “Robyn was the one who was keeping her together,” says writer Allison Samuels. “That’s when drugs became so important to her.”

Roberts tried to warn the family about the extent of Houston’s drug use in the 1980s by filing a report that detailed her excesses and named those who were enabling her. He was relieved of his duties.

Ellin Lavar, a member of Houston’s crew, recalls seeing the star looking emaciated at the 2001 Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary show at Madison Square Garden. “I would tell her: ‘Whitney, you’re killing yourself, you have to stop,” she says. “I also told other people in her camp. But when you’re making money for people, they don’t want you to stop.”

Given the salacious nature of the film’s revelations, some might accuse it of being exploitative. Broomfield disagrees. “I made a film I thought was fair,” he says. Houston’s family aren’t likely to agree. Broomfield says Cissy asked people not to cooperate and, he admits, he “wouldn’t be surprised if they try to take some kind of legal action”.

The singer’s family likewise refused to endorse the 2015 dramatisation of Houston’s story in the Lifetime TV movie Whitney. Reportedly, Cissy has her own documentary in the works, with Marley director Kevin Macdonald at the helm.

Despite her disdain, Cissy does make an appearance in Broomfield’s film, in footage shot by Rudi Dolezal in 1999, and via later TV interviews. He did not, however, talk to Brown or Crawford because, he says, they have each moved on. Clive Davis also declined to participate. Broomfield believes he demurred because he has his own documentary, Soundtrack of Our Lives, which is showing at the same film festival. In it, Davis expresses fatherly feelings for Houston and reveals his failed pleas for her to get help in her latter years.

Broomfield says the ultimate goal for his film is to celebrate the star’s talent, and to reveal her as a person. “What we tried to do was to explain it from her point of view, so you understand what she went through at various stages of her life,” he says. “The irony is that the wonderful person she actually was is so much more interesting than the image that was created around her.”

Whitney: Can I Be Me? will be shown at the Tribeca film festival on 26 April. It will be released in the UK on 16 June, and in the US later in the summer.

• This article was amended on 26 April 2017. An earlier version said incorrectly that the officially authorised Whitney Houston documentary was to be to be produced by the makers of the Oscar-winning film about Amy Winehouse.


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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