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Entries in Whitney Houston (1)

Wednesday
Jun072017

WHITNEY CAN I BE ME: THE NICK BROOMFIELD INTERVIEW

2017 SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: From the moment Nick Broomfield arrived in the US, the British documentarian has dug deep into the darkest recesses of American society. From the juvenile detention system (Tattooed Tears, 1979), to the mind of a psychopath (Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer, 1992), Broomfield has sought truths with a fearless, occasionally reckless, sometimes controversial eye for factual film. Some of his most acclaimed works have been dissections of doomed celebrities, including Monster in a Box (1992), featuring the late Spalding Gray; Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (1995); Kurt & Courtney (1998); Biggie and Tupac (2002); and, Sarah Palin: You Betcha! (2011).

His latest is Whitney: Can I Be Me, a heartbreaking work that charts the meteoric rise and addiction fuelled decline of America’s Pop Princess, the late Whitney Houston. The film is a combination of fresh interview footage and archival content, the most remarkable being concert and backstage footage shot in 1999 by the great Rudi Dolezal. From his car, sitting immobile in the daily traffic gridlock of one of Los Angeles busiest motorways, Nick Broomfield spoke with SCREEN-SPACE about his unauthorised exposé of one of pop culture’s sweetest, saddest talents…  

SCREEN-SPACE: Was a Whitney Houston project in your plans, or did Rudi’s footage give it impetus, a fresh focus?

BROOMFIELD: Rudi’s footage certainly gave it more focus and impetus, but I was working for a year without his footage. I’d done my interviews and got all the music together and was thinking about my edit when I met with Rudi this time last year and we decided to amalgamate our forces. I did not know going in I would have his footage but I was completely delighted when I saw it. It was unique and intimate and never been seen before. I have a profound respect for what Rudi managed to do. It was the luck of the Gods that it all worked out this way. (Pictured, right; Whitney I Can Be Me co-director, Rudi Dolezal)

SCREEN-SPACE: The chasm between her soaring talent and beauty and the depths of her addictions and mental health issues is heartbreaking. How do you perceive of her rise and fall?

BROOMFIELD: She was an incredibly sweet kid, who was funny, funny, funny growing up on the streets of Newark. She was someone who wanted everyone around her to be happy, so went along with the flow to a big extent. In that regard, she was malleable, which I think is what Clive Davis had been looking. She had talent but, unlike Aretha Franklin or Dionne Warwick, was very new to her career and talent. She was the perfect vehicle for Clive’s vision. But she paid an enormous price for that because, like most creations, they fall apart, when they want to be themselves. They don’t want to be something they know they are not.

SCREEN-SPACE: Having been devoutly involved with her neigbourhood, the backlash from the black community clearly left scars…

BROOMFIELD: It was increasingly hard for her to be ‘Whitney Houston’, particularly with the whole racial thing in the United States, which was so powerful. It was very hard for her to not be accepted by her own people, by the black community, who thought she was sell-out. They called her ‘Oreo Cookie’ or ‘Whitey Houston’, and that was pretty devastating for her. She couldn’t understand where that was coming from. I’m sure Bobby Brown had much more influence than he would have done if these things hadn’t happened. As soon as she stopped being the ‘angel’, the American Sweetheart, which took awhile to happen, and she became the target of ridicule on the late night talk shows…well, I think she was very thin-skinned and that response drove her deeper into her addictions. It was a sad downward spiral. (Pictured, above; Whitney Houston)

SCREEN-SPACE: It is fascinating to view her in hindsight, of her place in 80s pop culture. There was Madonna’s rawness, Michael Jackson’s ‘King of Pop’ status, Springsteen’s working class man persona. Whitney was the 'Princess', an innocent who just wanted to dance with somebody. In the end, it was all that was shitty about the 80s – drugs, corporatisation, race issues – that claimed her…

BROOMFIELD: That's very true. It was decade where all the black artists wanted to make the crossover to this big white audience, and I think the degree of sacrifice they had to make to achieve that was enormous. Not only in what they sang, but how they had to portray themselves. It was very much about forgetting or ignoring where they came from (to become) something that was acceptable in this country. In the same way that O.J. Simpson kind of ended up in a no man’s land that cast him as neither black nor white, Whitney went through not dissimilar things for a long time. When she decided to get back to her roots, she did it with a vengeance, with real defiance.

SCREEN-SPACE: Your film is typically insightful and thorough, but there’s a softer edge to how you approach her story as opposed to your portraits of Kurt Cobain or Tupac or Heidi Fleiss. Did the nature of her story demand that or are you getting melancholy in your old age?

BROOMFIELD: (Laughs) Well, it might be both. I think the film I did before this one, Tales of The Grim Sleeper, was also tender and more loving so, yes, maybe that’s true. Maybe there is more heart in it (pause). You know, I was definitely moved, unexpectedly moved by Whitney’s story. The editor and I would often have tears welling up as we cut it, and we’d both seen it I don’t know how many eyes. It is a very moving, very tragic story.

SCREEN-SPACE: Looking back at your portrait films, those that have featured the likes of Spalding Gray, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, and now Whitney Houston, can you see a through a line in these character types that your films address?

BROOMFIELD: People who give what all those artists give in a performance, who feel things so deeply, who are that charismatic…well, it’s very hard for them to fly so close to the sun and not get burnt. They so celebrate life, are so life affirming, that when we are in their presence you feel alive. Because they are so alive, they make incredible film subjects; they have that elixir. We are excited by the shiniest star and all those people have that, don’t they? Also, they are the icons of our time in history, of the culture we are part of. Portraits of people who have significance to our time and place are fascinating and speak volumes.

WHITNEY: I CAN BE ME screens June 7 and 9 at the Sydney Film Festival before a nationwide release on June 15 via Rialto Distribution. Festival session and ticket details can be found at the event’s official website