What Killed Whitney Houston? A New Documentary Searches for Answers

The new documentary Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me’ digs up salacious details of Houston’s past—drugs, Bobby Brown, a lesbian affair—to question if her death was preventable.

Courtesy Tribeca Film Festival

You hear the ticking whir of the news chopper, and then the wail of ambulance sirens. Before the audio of the 911 calls kicks in, you already have that feeling in the pit of your stomach—the one you feel any time her name has been brought up in the five years since Whitney Houston died.

In those years, every sordid, tragic detail of the singing supernova’s death has received the kind of grotesque and arguably intrepid sleuthing one might expect in the TMZ age—no salacious morsel left unpicked by the media vultures.

There have been, and likely will continue to be, countless documentaries, films, and stories that parse that death. The wild circumstances invite crassness: The world’s greatest singing talent, who spent as much time in her career on tabloid covers as she did on top of the charts, found dead in a bathtub at the famed Beverly Hilton on, of all times, the night before the Grammy Awards.

It’s clever of Whitney: ‘Can I Be Me,’ the new documentary about Houston that premiered Wednesday at the Tribeca Film Festival, to use that horrible moment as its starting point. The death, by this point, we certainly know about. But the film is concerned with the question of what came before. Not how, but why. Why did Whitney Houston die?

Can I Be Me’ comes from director Nick Broomfield, whose experience chronicling the tumultuous lives of ill-fated artists includes 1998’s Kurt and Courtney and 2002’s Biggie and Tupac. Expect this treatment of Houston to generate similar interest, as well as controversy.

Framing the film is previously unseen footage (filmed by co-director Rudi Dolezal) taken during Houston’s 1999 world tour, her last successful outing of that scale and one she barely made it through with the toll drugs, a lack of self-care, and the power struggle between then-husband Bobby Brown and best friend, creative director, and rumored lesbian lover Robyn Crawford took on her.

A wide range of people from Houston’s life during that time give interviews in the film: background singers, band members, hair stylists, her bodyguard, a drug counselor, and record label executives. Houston’s brothers participate, as does Bobby Brown’s sister, Tina, who ends up being our (perhaps unreliable) narrator of the final years of Houston’s life.

Sprinkling grains of salt all over this is the fact that Brown, Crawford, Clive Davis—who discovered and mentored Houston—and Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston, all did not participate in the film. In fact, Houston’s estate condemned the film and, according to Broomfield, even sent aggressive emails to those who did grant interviews urging them not to take part.

Still, taken as it is, ‘Can I Be Me’ is a fascinating look at the tensions between Houston’s private and public life—the struggle between what all the film’s subjects claim was Houston’s authentic self and the manufactured image of a pop superstar she felt pressure to uphold.

“Her favorite saying was, ‘Can I be me?’” says Kirk Whalum, her saxophonist on that 1999 tour. “In fact, she said it so much that we had it sampled… That was the conundrum. That, ‘Dammit, I have made all this money and all these people happy and I still can’t be me.’”

The film’s mission, given its subject—the woman who may very well be the greatest singer of them all—becomes if not ironic, then certainly very sad. It sets out to, finally, give Whitney Houston a voice.

That voice soundtracks much of ‘Can I Be Me.’

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Early on, there is amazing footage of her on that 1999 tour, milking the iconic pause in “I Will Always Love You” right before that big, rhapsodic “and IIIIIII…” In some respects, it’s glorious. In others, haunting. And yet, it perfectly encapsulates this film.

There is Whitney Houston singing one of the most successful records of all time, playfully toying with the audience at its signature moment. Yet, you look at her. She’s thin as a rail. She’s mopping sweat that is practically pouring off her brow. The makeup is smearing under her eyes, and she’s breathing dramatically. The diva is in her element, but the diva is unwell.

Nonetheless, it happens: She raises her arm, the drum beat kicks in, and out pours that climactic belt, soaring to the rafters. She kills it.

She must be doing alright, you think, if she can still do that. And maybe that’s what most of those around her thought.

Maybe that’s why they turned a blind eye to the drugs, dismissed her damaging relationship with Brown as passion, and didn’t encourage her to follow her bliss with Crawford, who may have been one of the few people in her circle with her best interest in mind.

Or maybe none of that is true, which might be the biggest flaw with ‘Can I Be Me’: its lack of authority. The stories, the backstage accounts, the gossip from all these people interviewed—in the end, it all amounts to just that: gossip. Still, it’s gossip that deepens your compassion for a hero of pop culture who became one of its most tragic figures.

“She changed history for us, and she paid a price for it,” says Pattie Howard, who was Houston’s backup singer on the 1999 tour. The rest of the film is spent tallying what exactly that price was.

Much time is spent discussing how much of her identity growing up in Newark, New Jersey, was given up as she ascended to the zenith of her fame, and how much the demons she fought later in life might have taken root in that upbringing.

“People may not know it, but Whitney was from the hood,” Howard says. “They wanted to present her as the princess. That’s what white America was presented. They weren’t presented Newark, New Jersey Whitney.”

We revisit the night when, after breaking The Beatles’ record for most consecutive No. 1 hits, Houston was nominated for a Soul Train Award and the live audience booed as her face appeared onscreen. The perspective of the community was that she had sold out.

Her next career move was to record the more R&B-sounding “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” a record Clive Davis reportedly didn’t want but Houston insisted she make. Still, Whalum says, “She, I don’t think, ever recovered from it. It was one of those boxes that was checked that, when ultimately she perished, it was because of those boxes. And that was a big one.”

Unsurprisingly, given the dishy nature of the documentary, there is near-constant speculation about the real nature of her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her closest friend and confidante with whom she was rumored to have an affair.

Her hairstylist and friend Ellin Lavar ventures that she was bisexual. Others rule that the love between them was real, but Houston felt pressured by her religion, her mother, Davis, and her culture to deny it.

So enter Bobby Brown. The stories about her fiery relationship with Brown are hardly new. The drug use itself isn’t new either, with Houston having granted candid interviews about it herself.

What is new, or at least partially illuminating, is the sheer level of enablement that went on around her. Many people relied on Houston for their own well-being and financial security, ranging from the record label to the friends and family she kept on her payroll and purchased cars and houses for.

And so the strong-arm rebuke David Roberts, a security guard, says he received when he submitted a concerned report following that 1999 tour is as unsurprising as it is alarming.

The details are salacious: She, according to him, overdosed while filming Waiting to Exhale, smuggled drugs in her genitalia, and was completely addicted. After he filed the report, he was fired. “That was the answer to the ‘do something to help her’ report,” he says.

The film recounts other humiliating, horrific stories, like when Houston was fired from performing at the 2000 Academy Awards after a trainwreck rehearsal with Burt Bacharach in which she sang the wrong song.

There is the 2001 Michael Jackson tribute concert in which she looked emaciated. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Lavar says. “I took Whitney in the bathroom. I pull her shirt up in the mirror and I say ‘look, you’re dying.’ She started crying. She said ‘I know. I don’t know what I do.’”

And Tina Brown talks about when Houston moved to Atlanta in 2003, supposedly for a fresh start. Cissy Houston showed up to take Houston to rehab, and Houston attempted to crawl over the balcony of the two-story house because she didn’t want to go. (Keep in mind, this is all unconfirmed.)

Years passed between each of these events, as well as her eventual divorce from Bobby Brown, which gutted her. Again, speculation: that this is what got her hooked back on crack.

When a life story includes such a dark death and, as ‘Can I Be Me’ certainly attests, invites such feverish gossip—even from the ones who loved you most—it can be hard to refocus on the simple act of celebrating, or just chronicling that life. And maybe that’s the point the film is trying to make.

The ending scene is footage from a decades-old interview, featuring a very young Houston. “How would you like to be remembered?” the anchor asks. Houston laughs and then, presciently, responds: “It probably doesn’t really matter anyways because they’re going to remember how they want to remember me anyway…”