Whitney Houston: Nick Broomfield's new doco aims to show singer's 'real' nature

Whitney: Can I Be Me containes never-seen-before footage from Houston's 1999 European concert tour.

Whitney: Can I Be Me containes never-seen-before footage from Houston's 1999 European concert tour.


Veteran documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield credits a couple of bottles of "good wine" as the key to the success of his latest effort – Whitney: Can I Be Me.

The 69-year-old Brit armed himself with the quality grape-squeezings during a side-trip to Vienna while heading to last year's Cannes Film Festival.

His delivery was to fellow director Rudi Dolezal, a man who held what many believed was the "Holy Grail" to Whitney Houston footage – an abandoned behind-the-scenes TV documentary of the European leg of her 1999 My Love is Your Love Tour.

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Whitney: Can I Be Me offers a very different look at the 1990s singing icon.

Whitney: Can I Be Me offers a very different look at the 1990s singing icon.

Broomfield was already a year into his own "unauthorised" look at the life and death of Whitney Houston, but despite having conducted a number of interviews with key players and secured the music rights he needed, he knew Dolezal's recordings would be crucial.

"For one reason or another, Rudi just never finished it, although you could see a lot of his work was stunning and very intimate," says Broomfield down the phoneline from his base in California.

He admits it took ages to find his quarry. "You think everyone's on the grid now, but I guess he'd had many offers for the footage before and he'd never accepted any."

Whitney Houston was born in 1963.

Whitney Houston was born in 1963.

Fortunately for Broomfield, his penchant for detective work (showcased in previous "rockumentaries" like Biggie and Tupac and Kurt & Courtney), gifts and charisma helped twist Dolezal's arm his way.

Of course, that led to a new problem – sifting through the around 100 hours of footage to find things Broomfield could marry up to what he'd already managed to gather. He had secured interviews with many of the 1990s global singing star's bandmates and friends, but had been stymied by Houston's estate who were busy plotting their own film, directed by Touching the Void and Marley's Kevin MacDonald.

"They had told everyone not to talk to me, but I actually think they undermined themselves, in a way. I don't think there's much love lost between the estate and Whitney's friends. Many of those we spoke to felt she had been really badly portrayed in the press and they kind of wanted to come and say what they thought of her."

Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield is headed to New Zealand with to present his latest documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me

Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield is headed to New Zealand with to present his latest documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me

While he says the pressure of having another film on the same subject "up your a**" made for a less-than-restful shoot, there was no way he was going to be deterred from making Whitney: Can I Be Me.

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"I just do things pretty much on a whim as a whole. You think, 'This is going to take a year of my life, but I'm interested enough'. With Whitney, there were enough contradictions about her, but I had no idea until I really got into it that I realised just how heartbreaking her story was and what an amazing person she was. I ended up making a very different story to what I thought I was at the beginning.

"A lot of the shows that have been done about her have been derogatory. She comes across in those as a prima donna drug addict, which is not particularly attractive at all.

Whitney Houston grew up on the tough streets of Newark, New Jersey.

Whitney Houston grew up on the tough streets of Newark, New Jersey.

"Looking at Rudi's footage, you realise just how witty and funny she was. She was a kind of a prankster really. She just had this incredible laugh and kind of wanted to have a good time more than anything. She wasn't one of these incredibly obsessive, driven, highly ambitious people at all."

Fans of Broomfield's work, which has ranged from the aforementioned music documentaries to investigations in the lives of other controversial "pop culture" figures like Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss and Republican politician Sarah Palin, will also notice something strikingly different about Whitney. Broomfield has all but kept himself out of the picture.

"In some of the earlier cuts, I made in appearance," he admits. "But it's such a dense story and I think she's such a strong person. I just wanted to put everything into telling her story and get her to tell it as much as possible. I wanted Whitney's voice coming through and for people to know emotionally what Whitney was feeling. I wanted her to be a major character in the film, rather than a lot of experts talking about her. I think that takes quite a lot of work.

"The films I did about Biggie and Kurt are much more conspiracy theory films investigating who killed who – a kind of a portrait of the LA Police Department and that kind of stuff. They are a different kind of story. If you're doing a story that is mainly archival and there isn't some theory, then maybe sticking to archival footage is more interesting, particularly for an audience into that particular star. They want to go and see the film because they love, or are fascinated by that person. I didn't belong in this story. It's not my story, it's Whitney's."

While the film will debut in select cinemas nationwide on May 25, Wellington and Auckland audiences will get the chance to see it earlier as part of this month's Documentary Edge Film Festival. Broomfield himself will be attending the Auckland premiere, which doubles as that leg's opening night on May 24. It's his first-ever visit to New Zealand.

"I have changed planes once at Auckland and it might be a little too cold to go hiking which is what I would love to, but I'm sure I'll find lots of things to distract myself with my week off."

One thing that has already tickled his fancy is the news that New Zealand has its own Architecture & Design Film Festival (which is currently touring the main centres).

"I'm a such a sucker for that stuff. Good architectural films – I good watch them all day. I don't know why, but I'm fascinated by them – I'm probably in the small minority though."

Broomfield admits he'd be keen to enter his two 2016 Disappearing Britain documentaries on buildings in Cardiff and Liverpool in next year's festival, even if it's just an excuse for another trip to New Zealand.

However, one thing he won't be drawn on is what is next documentary subject will be.

"Do you really think I'm going to tell you?" he laughs. "I'll get served with a lawsuit before I even start. I seem to have got this name for myself.  I'm not quite sure what I've done, but now I kind of have to play with my cards close to my chest."

Screening as part of the Documentary Edge Film Festival, Nick Broomfield will attend the Auckland premiere of Whitney: Can I Be Me on May 24. For more information, see docedge.nz. The film opens in select cinemas nationwide the following day.

 - Stuff

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