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Entries in Biography (2)

Saturday
May202017

WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME

Featuring: Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown, Cissy Houston, Robyn Crawford and John Russell Houston Jr.,
Writer: Nick Broomfield.
Directors: Rudi Dolezal and Nick Broomfield.

Screens at Sydney Film Festival on June 7th and 9th, then in national wide release from June 15.

Rating: 4.5/5

Returning to the ‘music icon dissection’ sub-genre of his most commercial works Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), Nick Broomfield hits a shattering high note with Whitney: Can I Be Me, a soaring celebration of a once-in-a-generation talent and a heartbreaking study into the corrosive pressure that fame and addiction can inflict.

The British documentarian’s skilful manipulation of archival material and interview content is combined with remarkable reels of never-before-seen film, shot in 1999 by Rudi Dolezal. The music video maestro (Freddie Mercury: The Untold Story, 2000; Sarah Brightman: Harem A Desert Fantasy, 2004) accompanied Whitney Houston and her massive live show entourage as they traversed Europe on what would be her last successful tour. It can be surmised that Dolezal was crafting an insider documentary along the lines of Madonna’s Truth or Dare, but as the gruelling schedule persisted, the songstress’ health and performances deteriorated and the footage became unreleasable.

Houston, who passed away February 11, 2012 at the age of 48 in a bathroom at the Beverly Hills Hotel, is recalled as a precociously talented pre-teen belting out gospel standards in her New Jersey neighbourhood church. The uniqueness and scope of her majestic voice is clear to all who come into her world, none more so than her driven mother Cissy and loving father John. Broomfield has dug deep to find early live shows and Houston’s first TV appearances, including her Tonight Show debut at the age of 19; the footage is still awe-inspiring to watch.

The first act of Whitney: Can I Be Me is a rousing ode to her vocal range and the meteoric rise to superstardom that she achieved under record boss, Clive Davis. But the seeds are sown for her downfall, as well; she was a recreational user from an early age and, more worryingly, she is pilloried by the black community for selling-out her African-American roots and refashioning herself as a mainstream-friendly pop princess. Broomfield drills down on the combination of elements that factored into his subject’s fate, most tellingly her need to hide her bisexuality and long-term relationship with closest confidant, Robyn Crawford, and her co-dependent marriage to rapper and fellow substance abuser, Bobby Brown.

Stylistically recalling fellow Brit Asif Kapadia’s similarly tragic Oscar-winner Amy (2015), Broomfield eases his pacing to allow for a deeper, more soulful understanding of just how far Houston had descended into mental and physical ill-health (in one unforgettable moment, Diane Sawyer rattles off a list of narcotics and asks, “Which is your greatest demon?”; Houston replies, “I am.”) The final period of Whitney’s life, in which her behaviour became erratic and her voice weakened, has been the subject of much public derision but Broomfield, not always known for his subtlety with his celebrity subjects, admirably refuses to include well-circulated footage of her sad last performances. Instead, he is blunt about the human tragedy of her final days and the hotel room details of her death, which portray a woman in the grip of the darkest thoughts.

There are some ‘easter egg’ moments along the way that provide brevity, including the revelation that it was The Bodyguard co-star and producer Kevin Costner’s decision to pull all instrumentation from the beginning of Houston’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You. Broomfield opens the film with a single take live rendition, tight on Houston’s face as it contorts and strains to command the arrangement, all captured by Rudi Dolezal’s camera 18 years ago.

The footage reveals both the physical toll and emotional connection that Houston shared with her biggest hit, which has gone through incarnations as blockbuster ballad to kitschy joke to where it stands today; an achingly emotional testament to one of the greatest singers and most-troubled public figures that popular entertainment has ever known. A description that is also entirely appropriate for Broomfield’s and Dolezal’s film.

Wednesday
Jul242013

HARRY DEAN STANTON: PARTLY FICTION

Featuring: Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Debbie Harry, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shephard, Jamie James, Logan Sparks and Wim Wenders.
Director: Sophie Huber

Rating: 4.5/5

Feature-length documentary debutant Sophie Huber’s filmed biography of character actor Harry Dean Stanton achieves the precise laconic, abstract, existential depth and grace one associates with the man himself. An artful, mesmerising ode to the ultimate character actor’s outlook on the industry and life in general, …Partly Fiction never teeters over into hagiographic adulation yet manages to convey the very uniqueness that has made Stanton the enigmatic force he is today.

Portraying a man who exists within a sharply-defined world focussed via his own experience, Swiss filmmaker Huber employs subtle, lovely camera technique and lulling sound design to capture Stanton as a benevolent spirit, rich in wisdom. Credited with 40 years worth of iconic support turns in films as diverse as Cool Hand Luke, The Missouri Breaks, The Straight Story, Alien and Repo Man (all cliped here), and one of American cinema’s most affecting lead roles (as ‘Travis’ in Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas), the subject is now a ragged, camera-friendly presence who doesn’t give up a lot of words yet still conveys a great deal.

Ironically (or, perhaps, fittingly, given his skill at choosing well written parts), Stanton’s true self is most revealed in the lyrics of his favourite songwriters. He breaks into song regularly (accompanied by his offscreen guitarist friend), usually to the words of Johnny Cash; in one sequence that conveys just how respected he is by actors and musicians alike, he is serenaded by his Cisco Pike co-star Kris Kristofferson (from whose song, ‘He’s A Pilgrim’, the film draws its title).

The softly-softly approach Huber takes pays dividends when Stanton drops the occasional incisive bombshell. Most shocking amongst them his recounting of his long-term but ultimately doomed love affair with actress Rebecca de Mornay; “I lost her to Tom Cruise,” he laughs, recalling the fling the toothy star and leading lady had during the shooting of 1983’s Risky Business.  Another revelation hinted at is the actor’s past with punk-pop queen, Debbie Harry.

Harry Dean Stanton’s Hollywood standing is legendary; he is humbly open about his relationship with Hollywood players such as Marlon Brando and ex-roomie Jack Nicholson. One the films most delightful passages is a couch chat between Stanton and his seven-time collaborator, David Lynch (it could have been eight, it is revealed, had Stanton taken the Dennis Hopper role in Blue Velvet, a part he was offered but felt was too dark for his sensibilities).

Perhaps the most revealing scenes are those that capture Stanton as the ‘everyman’, downing shots at his local bar with old friends who adore him and young suited types who don’t know who he is (in one hilarious sequence, he convinces an ignorant twenty-something that his real name is ‘Ron’ and that he is a ex-astronaut who now works for NASA).

But both Stanton and Huber understand that true character is defined by the most non-verbal of traits; the lines in the aging actor’s face, or the pauses and silences that Stanton dwells in whilst contemplating, are the film’s greatest strengths.

Particular credit must go to DOP Seamus McGarvey, who lensed Stanton’s bit part in last summer’s blockbuster The Avengers but here exhibits a true artist’s touch; his use of crisp black-&-white cinematography for the interview close-ups captures every ragged crevice of the subjects face, while his warm, rich use of night-time colour helps Stanton become one with his surroundings.

Read the SCREEN-SPACE feature, Troupers: An Appreciation of Character Actors, here.