Showtime’s new Whitney Houston documentary is not always fun to watch — and that’s coming from its executive producer.
“An accurate portrayal of her life,” says Vinnie Malhotra, “is unfortunately a painful one.”
Premiering Friday at 9 p.m., “Whitney: Can I Be Me” has a darkness that’s mitigated but never vanquished by Houston’s music.
Houston’s albums — with songs like “The Greatest Love Of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “So Emotional” and “How Will I Know” — sold multimillions. The album from the 1992 film “The Bodyguard,” which includes her rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” remains the best-selling soundtrack ever.
She became a pop music icon, earning an estimated quarter-billion dollars in her lifetime, and “Can I Be Me,” directed by Nick Broomfield, acknowledges all that.
It also suggests “all that” helped create the problems — drugs, alcohol, divorce, ugly headlines and sheer pressure — that paved the path to Feb. 11, 2012, when Houston was found dead in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub at the age of 48.
“Nick shows how Whitney was the victim of a system that many have fallen prey to,” says Malhotra, and that system notably includes becoming the fame-and-fortune ticket for everyone around you, including family.
In one of the film’s most stunning moments, Houston’s former real-life bodyguard David Roberts talks about how, after a tour riddled with drug use, he wrote a report saying the only thing that mattered was addressing that problem now.
The response from her management was to thank the bodyguard for his services, which would no longer be required.
“Her handlers didn’t even consider it a question of, ‘Hey, let’s take a break,’” Malhotra says. “It was more like, ‘Keep going,’ because there were a lot of people feeding off her.”
Broomfield didn’t talk with the Houston family, which is currently working with Scottish director Kevin Macdonald on an authorized documentary.
Malhotra suggests Broomfield may have gotten a more honest portrayal, albeit a darker one, by talking with people like Houston’s band or hairdresser who don’t have any personal interest beyond wanting people to know what they saw.
“Nick found they were eager to talk,” says Malhotra. “They’ve heard what’s out there and they don’t see those stories as an accurate portrayal.”
Like the film, Malhotra suggests a critical part of the pressure on Houston came from her mother Cissy, a pop and gospel singer who taught and groomed Whitney from childhood.
“I see an undercurrent of jealousy with Cissy over Whitney’s success,” he says. “Certain moments reveal that.”
Not that it was just Cissy.
“If Whitney had different people around her” in general, Malhotra suggests, “her life might not have gone in the direction it did.”
“Can I Be Me” points to several specific flashpoints that people around Houston saw as bad for her: falling in with her eventual husband Bobby Brown; having to address gossip about her sexual preference because of her close friendship with Robyn Crawford; being booed as a “sellout” at the 1989 Soul Train Awards; being sued by the entertainment company that was co-run by the dying father she adored; discovering after “The Bodyguard” that she couldn’t go out in public; and finally having Crawford forced out of her life because of animosity from Cissy and Brown — who also couldn’t stand each other.
Houston made some bad choices, the film suggests, but too many of her choices were made for her — including the seminal directive that she sing only pop songs despite her love of gospel and R&B.
“It worked for her until it didn’t,” Malhotra says. “You see the joy gradually being sucked out of her life. We watch a beautiful star burn out — and yes, it’s painful.”
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