If you're anything like me, you'll have two images of Whitney Houston fixed inside your head. One is of the vivacious twentysomething with frizzy hair who first registered in the world's consciousness in those dayglo videos for "How Will I Know?" and "I Wanna Dance with Somebody". This is the Whitney who ended up on countless bedroom walls in poster form; who inspired one of the first KLF experiments, and inspired Serge Gainsbourg to new levels of televised lechery. The other is of a Whitney I never saw, but who may be all too vividly imagined: the Whitney nearing the end of her tragically short life, haunting that suite at the Beverly Hills Hilton in early 2012, surrounded by drug paraphernalia, a bath running somewhere off-camera. With Whitney: "Can I Be Me?", the documentarists Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal strive to dig out the images that make up the rest of this picture, and which might answer that title question, among others. Such as: how did somebody raised as a devout Christian wind up on crack as she neared her fiftieth year? And perhaps most crucially of all: where did all that vivacity, the light and joy in her eyes, finally go?
Broomfield, of course, has form with pop postmortems, yet the first thing to be said about "Can I Be Me?" is that it's altogether more conventionally composed than his conspiratorially minded investigations into the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. Talking heads are spliced together with (rare, and often revealing) archive; although Broomfield can be heard in several places asking follow-up questions of Whitney's friends, colleagues and entourage, he remains off-screen throughout, acknowledging, perhaps, that this is not his story. The question flagged by the title is just whose story this actually is. So it is that "Can I Be Me?"'s first half pays lip service to its subject's imperious, showstopping voice and rapid success, but the film frames Houston almost from the off as a product of a particularly corporate moment, and very much at the mercy of the music industry's machinations: marketed incessantly in conjunction with her illustrious relatives (mom Cissy, aunt Dionne Warwick), produced in such a way as not to sound too black. Enormous success followed, as did a not inconsiderable backlash from within the African-American community.
Very quickly, a fatalistic mood is established: even those early glory years - the bestselling debut album, more consecutive #1s than the Beatles, the transfer to the silver screen with 1992's The Bodyguard (approached, drolly, via an interview with Houston's actual minder David Roberts) - are parsed for signs of the tragedy to come. The editorial line Broomfield and Dolezal adopt insists that it must simply have been very hard for the singer, prone as she was to self-esteem issues, to feel as though she'd accomplished anything for herself. One especially needling biographical detail is that Houston first met Bobby Brown - her on-off partner for the last twenty years of her life - at the very same Soul Train Awards at which she was booed by the audience for perceived inauthenticity; and if ever there was an illustration of the vagaries of the human heart, you might want to consider how a poised, bright and thoroughly upright former choirgirl ended up on the arm of this slouching, swaggering, barely coherent ne'er-do-well. (I mean, I like "My Prerogative" as much as the next guy, but c'mon.) The pair's first public appearances were, in the gospel according to Nick and Rudi, the last glimmers of light before Houston began circling the plughole.
Throughout its ninety minutes, you can feel "Can I Be Me?" placing unusual emphasis on previously unseen footage of its subject's European concert tour of 1999, describing it as the singer's last successful endeavour. (The voice was shortly to enter into terminal decline, diminished by some very free and easy living; a throwaway caption informs us Houston had already overdosed on cocaine after the filming of Waiting to Exhale in 1995.) This leaves the directors with thirteen years to fill - a horrifying void in which the world barely heard a squeak out of the singer, save for whatever the supermarket tabloids chose to report. What Broomfield and Dolezal uncover here is a behind-the-scenes battle for that showbusiness perennial, control: on one side, Robyn Crawford, Houston's PA, oldest friend and rumoured lover, determined to keep this show on the road; on the other, Bobby, holding up the promise of a wedding ring and the stimulants that made his boo feel better about the world for a moment (or at least forget his philandering). We know who won and who lost - although the tragedy assumes an extra, crushing dimension when Bobbi Kristina toddles on from the sidelines during that 1999 tour, collateral damage waiting to happen.
Although the lawyers have clearly been over it with a fine-toothed comb - you may feel the still-extant Brown gets off lightly in this telling, and Ray J is mentioned not at all - Broomfield's journalistic influence is felt in the unflinching depiction of this descent: it's telling that, after documenting the early highs (and there's one properly astounding clip of Houston's debut as a 19-year-old on The Tonight Show), the film dials back the music to deal in the grim and grubby facts. That makes "Can I Be Me?" a very different proposition from 2015's Amy, a film couched on some level as a two-hour, multiplex-friendly memorial concert; what we're offered here is no more or less than a bracing lesson, a warning from showbiz history - one that realises that so much pop culture is at best optimistic fantasy, pitched to us by those looking to turn a fast and sharp buck, regardless of the consequences. In The Bodyguard, Houston had the dashing white knight Kevin Costner to step in and save her from a would-be assassin's bullets; in reality, Whitney fired her minder after he raised doubts with her management that she might have started running with the wrong crowd. Bittersweet memories; that is all I'm taking with me. Had it been heard in this bleak context, "I Will Always Love You" might have started to sound like the first draft of a suicide note.
Whitney: "Can I Be Me?" opens in selected cinemas from Friday.