Director Nick Broomfield wanted to change the conversation around Whitney Houston with his new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me. “We’re always looking for a reason to not give people a second chance, and I think she was so harshly judged for her drug addiction,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “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.”
To achieve that goal, Can I Be Me draws on archival footage, unreleased video from a 1999 tour of Germany, and interviews with collaborators, friends and record executives. Here are eight things we learned from the film, which premieres tonight on Showtime.
1. Houston was exposed to drugs at a young age. Can I Be Me spends a lot of time chronicling Houston’s relationship with drugs, which contributed to her death in 2012 at age 48. The film argues that narcotics were around long before Houston became a global superstar or met husband Bobby Brown. Her brother recalls her trying heroin for the first time at age 10. “When Whitney and I met, we were in our teens,” recalls Ellin Lavar, a longtime friend of the singer. “They did drugs. It was a thing you do: Go out, party, drink, do a little drugs. Everybody did it, and her brothers gave it to her.”
2. Clive Davis marketed Houston aggressively towards white listeners. “Clive is a master at pop music,” says Kenneth Reynolds, Davis’ fellow former Arista executive. “He had a vision for a pop artist – he tried to do it with Dionne [Warwick] and Aretha [Franklin], but they were far too established in their career as to who they were. Along comes Whitney, who was so moldable. She was the perfect vehicle. … The company had this vision in mind that they were going to create a pop icon. An artist that was accepted by the masses, translating to white America.”
“Anything that was too ‘black-sounding’ was sent back to the studio,” Reynolds continues. “To say ‘black-sounding,’ in case you have a problem with that, is to say that it’s too George Clinton, too Funkadelic, too R&B. We want Joni Mitchell, we want Barbra Streisand … We don’t want a female James Brown.” Davis is not interviewed in the film and only appears via old footage.
3. The pop marketing caused some black listeners to feel betrayed. Near the peak of her popularity in the mainstream – Houston notched seven consecutive Hot 100 Number Ones between 1985 and 1988 – the singer was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. “The perspective in the community was that Whitney had sold out,” explains Doug Daniels, a former Arista R&B promotions executive.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Houston is heard explaining later. “You have to sit there, like, ‘Are they booing me?’ You have to be cordial and be smiling like everything’s OK. … You’re not black enough for them, or you’re not R&B enough. [When] you’re very pop, [they think] the white audience has taken you away.”
4. This, in turn, led Houston to push back against her record company. “[Getting booed at the Soul Train Awards] was not only tough for Whitney, it was devastating,” asserts saxophonist Kirk Whalum, who toured with Houston. “I don’t think she ever recovered from it. It was one of those boxes that was checked, that when she ultimately perished, it was because of those boxes.”
“Whitney insisted they cross her back over to black music,” he adds. “‘I’m Your Baby Tonight’ [a Number One in 1990 written and produced by ascendant R&B aces Babyface and L.A. Reid] was not a record that Clive Davis wanted to make. But she says, ‘I’m not making another record like you want. I’m gonna do me now.’”
After The Bodyguard, which had tremendous crossover success, Houston would reunite with Babyface for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, and 1998’s My Love Is Your Love also featured contributions from state-of-the-art R&B producers like Rodney Jerkins.
5. Kevin Costner argued in favor of the famous a cappella opening to “I Will Always Love You.” Producer David Foster originally planned for Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” (originally written and recorded by Dolly Parton) to have wall-to-wall instrumentation, but Costner suggested that Houston sing the opening unaccompanied during the filming of The Bodyguard. “I said, ‘Kevin, that’s so stupid,’” Foster remembers. “No music – are you kidding me? We’re trying to get on radio.”
“I’m standing there,” he continues, “and [Whitney] goes, ‘[Starts singing] If I …’ It was like, ‘Oh, my God, are you kidding me? This is the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.’ From that second on, I knew that the only way that record could ever be [made] was with that a cappella opening.”
6. Radio programmers hounded Houston’s label about her sexuality. Houston’s relationship with her childhood friend Robyn Crawford caused radio programmers – whom Reynolds describes as “99.9 percent heterosexual and 99.999999 percent homophobic” – to start asking pointed questions about Houston’s personal life. “I’d have calls from radio station program directors,” another Arista executive remembers. “They’d say, ‘Hey man, is Whitney gay?’ I’d say, ‘Huh?’”
Can I Be Me suggests that once Brown came on the scene – he met Houston the same night she was booed at the Soul Train Awards – he and Crawford battled for Houston’s attention, sometimes even coming to blows. Crawford stayed a part of Houston’s operation through the Nineties, but left after a 1999 tour of Germany. She appears in the documentary only through flashbacks to footage from the Eighties and Nineties and does not address her relationship with Houston.
Speaking to Oprah in 2013, Whitney’s mother, Cissy Houston, said she would not have approved of her daughter having a romantic relationship with another woman. “Would it have bothered you if your daughter Whitney was gay?” Oprah asks. “Absolutely,” Houston replies.
7. Internal reports of the dangers of Houston’s drug use were ignored. Houston first overdosed while working on the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. David Roberts, her real-life bodyguard, later filed a report to “to the family members who were in charge of the business” following what he describes as “a disastrous tour to Singapore.” Houston’s entourage allegedly smuggled narcotics into the country so that everyone could continue using; the singer’s voice was worsening, partially because of her drug habit.
“Everybody was on drugs,” Foster recalls. “It’s a case of degrees, that’s all. I put it down on paper. I got the telephone call and a meeting: ‘Thank you very much, Ms. Houston has decided she doesn’t need anyone of your caliber and experience again because she’s not touring internationally in the future.’ … That was the answer to the ‘do something to help her’ report.”
8. Houston paved the way for Beyoncé’s rise. This declaration comes from Pattie Howard, one of Houston’s back-up vocalists. She continues, “[Back then] we did not have the Beyoncés and any of the African-American female artists that can now be at the top of the pop chart – that absolutely was not going to happen before Whitney Houston. She changed history for us. And she paid a price for it.”
As the film is coming to a tragic close, Howard adds, “Where is the great appreciation for her contribution to the world?”