Nick Bloomfield is not the greatest documentarian, even if he’s one of the most famous. He made his significant name with provocative titles such as Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam, Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac, putting himself into the picture with his signature boom mike and even-more-signature idiosyncratic British drawl (if you’ve seen the work of Louis Theroux you’ll be hip to Bloomfield’s early style). He stays out of Whitney: Can I Be Me, his feature doc on Whitney Houston, but, as with the majority of his work, he takes a point of view; trouble is, as with much of his work, that point of view is muddy and obtuse.
Whitney’s death is the big feature here, and the film is framed as something of a detective story, not a “whodunnit?” but a “howdidit?” Unfortunately, the answer is pretty clear: long term drug use killed the deceased, Your Honour, case closed. So Bloomfield, seeking to spice things up, dwells on the love triangle at the centre of Houston’s universe – between herself, husband Bobby Brown, and best friend and possible lover Robyn Crawford – with diminishing returns, as we realise that Crawford isn’t going to appear on camera.
Her absence leaves a gap too thematically large for the many talking heads to fill; it’s kind of like a piece of journalism missing the most important source. There is a lot of footage from Houston’s final tour – seen for the first time – that certainly shows both the astonishing talent and the ravages of addiction, and there are often terribly sad revelations, such as the on-camera admission by Houston’s mother Cissy that she could not abide homosexuality on her daughter’s part. But Houston herself remains a weirdly remote, distant figure, which is a big problem for the subject of a feature doc.
The overwhelming feeling this Whitney:Can I Be Me provokes is sadness, and not just because of the drugs and the brilliant life cut short. There isn’t any celebration here; like a lot of Bloomfield’s work, there is only casualty.