Nick Broomfield on His Whitney Houston Documentary and Why He Doesn't Want Her Estate’s Approval

Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston performs. The singer’s life is documented in Nick Broomfield’s film “Whitney: Can I Be Me.” David Corio

Editing his new Whitney Houston documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, there were moments filmmaker Nick Broomfield became profoundly emotional, he tells me. The only other time he’s felt so deeply in his career, which spans 30 films, is when he made two features about the serial killer Aileen Wuornos, who was convicted of the murders of seven men and was executed in 2002. An unlikely comparison, to be sure: Houston’s only crime is perhaps allowing her once-soaring mezzo-soprano voice to become deteriorated by drug use. But just as Broomfield found humanity in Wuornos—who alleged she was sexually abused by family members as a child and whose mental competency Broomfield’s documentary Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer questioned—he, too, found a fragility and sadness in the superstar singer.

“Can I be me?” is a question Houston would often ask herself. Broomfield finds a poignancy in that: She couldn’t be her, in life and even now years after her death in February 2012.

The filmmaker believes Houston was engulfed in a stratospheric fame that she didn’t really want, but sacrificed her own happiness and fulfillment for the sake of those around her. Perhaps that is why drugs became a coping mechanism. When Houston was plucked from a poor area of Newark, New Jersey, and pegged as the next big pop star in the mid-1980s, “she was the way out for lots of people—her family, her friends; she had this enormous entourage of 50-plus people that she supported all her life,” says Broomfield. “She was paying for their houses, schools, everything.”

Broomfield’s documentary blends firsthand interviews with some of Houston’s closest aides and friends, and archival and never-before-seen footage from the singer’s 1999 world tour, shot by Rudi Dolezal, who is credited as Broomfield’s co-director. The intimate moments captured by Dolezal show a playful side to the star’s relationship with rapper Bobby Brown, someone Broomfield says has been vilified in the narrative of Houston’s life and accused of introducing her to drugs. Brown was one of the most important relationships in the singer’s life, along with Houston’s best friend Robyn Crawford. In the documentary, some of the people Broomfield interviewed speculate Houston’s relationship with Crawford was romantic. (“I don’t think she was gay, I think she was bisexual,” says stylist Ellin Levar.) Houston’s closeness to Crawford, the filmmaker says, has been whitewashed by the singer’s family and estate after her death. (In a 2013 interview with Oprah, Houston’s mother Cissy said she would not have condoned a romantic relationship between them.)

Broomfield didn’t seek the approval of Houston’s estate—a rival documentary by The Last King of Scotland director Kevin Macdonald is in the works with the estate’s support. But Broomfield has struck first; Can I Be Me premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April, will be released in theaters across the U.K. Friday and will premiere on Showtime in the U.S. later in 2017.

Here, Broomfield discusses why his film is a celebration of the iconic “I Will Always Love You” songstress, why he didn’t seek to make an “official” documentary and reminisces about Aileen Wuornos.

What drew you to Whitney Houston?

I don’t know if I was drawn her to being tragic.... I was drawn to her being so iconic. She was such a massive influence on people’s lives. I think a lot of people were cruel to her toward the end of her life, so it seemed like a good opportunity to look at her life again and celebrate what was so amazing. And maybe look at the harshness with which she was treated at the end.

For all her success, Whitney’s story is also quite tragic, like other musicians. Is there a perpetual link between fame and tragedy?

Success is wonderful, but dealing with fame, I think Whitney says, is very difficult—all these people calling your name. I think she became so famous she couldn’t go out. A person that was exceedingly generous, as Whitney was, and kind, she couldn’t deal with it at a certain point. She just wanted to hang out with her friends, watch TV soaps...she retreated more and more into this world.

I think she was very self-critical, and people were harsh on her. If you look at those late-night talk shows, they were cruel to her: She was fair game to make horrible jokes about.

Whitney made a big music comeback in 2009. She seemed to be back on form. What went wrong in those final years after that?

I spoke at length with Michael Baker, her musical director; she didn’t want to do the tour, Clive Davis didn’t want her to do the tour.... Her vocal cords had gone, she couldn’t really sing anymore. Michael Baker said it shortened his life just trying to deal with the tour. She was also very uncompromising—she wouldn’t lip-synch; she insisted on doing it live, but she couldn’t do it live.

She did this to support her family who were living off her, who were putting pressure on her to go back on the road because she was supporting their lifestyles. She was basically broke at that point. There’s all of these people living off you, so you can’t just retreat to a little farm in the country, which is what I think she wanted to do. I spoke to both of her drug counselors.... She did not want to continue performing. She just wanted to heal herself and spend time with [daughter] Bobbi Kristina and be a normal citizen.

Do you think she just wanted to retire from public life?

I get that [impression]. She talked about literally having a white picket fence and living by the seaside. That’s what she talked to her drug counselors about. But there was all this pressure on her to go back on the road.

Your film is “unauthorized” by Whitney’s estate. Did you have any interaction with them about it?

We have 14 songs in the film which were her main hits, we have incredible live performances of the songs, the most unusual behind-the-scenes footage that anyone has ever seen. Why do I need the estate? The estate completely disapproved of Robyn Crawford and wanted to obliterate the memory of Robyn from their version of Whitney Houston. I would have enormous problems [with that], because I make these films to be real and true.

I think as a documentary filmmaker you need to have a pact with the audience, and that pact is that you’re not going to toe the party line. I’m an independent filmmaker because I feel like that gives you the right to tell the story that you see there, not because someone is telling you what to do.

On a separate subject, I studied your films about Aileen Wuornos—The Selling of a Serial Killer (1993) and Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)—when I studied documentary filmmaking. They were hugely impactful. Do you ever think about Aileen?

I was thinking about her last night. I was doing a Q&A, and they screened Life and Death. I get very choked up thinking about her actually. It was a devastating experience, and I felt very passionately for Aileen. Even talking about Aileen yesterday...it was something that hit me very hard, which I didn’t expect. There was something about Aileen that was so emotionally appealing—there was something so helpless about her.

Whitney: Can I Be Me begins theatrical releases internationally from June 16; it airs on Showtime in the U.S. in August.