Consideration, Respect, Moderation, Whitney.
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‘How would you like to be remembered?” a television interviewer asks a young Whitney Houston. She closes her eyes for a moment, then laughs. “You know, it probably doesn’t matter anyway, ’cos they gonna remember me how they want to remember me anyway.”
She was right about that. Nobody has a say in how they are remembered, especially not those who lead public and troubled lives, die tragically early and leave behind a trail of secrets and unanswered questions. Not to mention a sizeable fortune and a bankable back catalogue. As Houston seems to have intuited back then, she was destined to become prime biopic material. Today’s cultural history is increasingly being written by film-makers, and for high-profile subjects such as Houston, there is often a scrum of them competing to do the remembering.
Houston’s interview excerpt appears in Nick Broomfield’s new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me, which takes us on the erratic, emotional rollercoaster ride of Houston’s life, through the peaks of pop superstardom and the troughs of drugs, career and family woes, and a destructive bisexual love triangle. The film pieces together her story with frank interviews and archive clips, plus extensive footage from Houston’s 1999 tour – filmed by Rudi Dolezal, who gets a co-directing credit – which captures her incredible talent as a performer and the personal dynamics playing out backstage, particularly between her husband, Bobby Brown, and her assistant Robyn Crawford, who, it is alleged, was Houston’s long-time lesbian lover. “I felt this would be a loving portrait of someone who’d had a very difficult and complicated life,” says Broomfield.
His is not the only Houston bio-doc out there, however. Another esteemed British documentary-maker, Kevin Macdonald, is currently editing his “official” Whitney Houston documentary – made with the blessing and collaboration of Houston’s estate and due for release next year. How the two projects differ will be interesting to see, but the clash highlights a faultline running through this entire terrain: the difference between “authorised” and “unauthorised”. There are advantages to both: the authorised route can open-up access to key figures and materials, the never-before-seen footage and previously unheard tracks. But going unauthorised allows you to bypass the official channels and get behind the facades.
Either extreme of the authorised/unauthorised spectrum can produce ridiculous results. At one end, you find vanity projects such as Ronaldo – a watchably excruciating account of narcissistic footballer Cristiano Ronaldo that makes him look as freakish as his bust at Madeira’s airport. At the other end, you find unashamedly exploitative, “unofficial” biopics such as those the Lifetime network dashes off, often before the corpses have gone cold. Lifetime’s most notorious celebrity embalmings have included Aaliyah, Brittany Murphy and Michael Jackson. And, of course, they have done Whitney (2015’s Whitney Houston: A Tragic Love, directed by Angela Bassett).
As anyone familiar with Broomfield’s work will know, official channels are not his thing. He is something of a documentarian Colombo, deploying a shambolic, exploratory investigatory method that often yields surprising revelations. His 2002 film Kurt & Courtney, for example, aired allegations that Kurt Cobain’s death was not suicide, while 1998’s Biggie and Tupac uncovered new information on the two rappers’ killings, as well as revealing both to be less mythically gangsta than their musical personas suggested.
“I’m not good at being told what I can and can’t put in,” says Broomfield. “That’s completely counter to what I’m doing. It sounds very naive but I always believe there’s a pact between me and the audience, and I’m going to tell them what I really believe. That’s the problem with going through the estate: you have to give them a certain amount of creative control, and that control probably doesn’t agree with your vision.”
Indeed, Dolezal had exactly that experience trying to make his documentary in co-operation with Houston’s estate. According to Broomfield, “There was very strong pressure on him to ignore Robyn Crawford and paint Bobby Brown as the devil.” Instead, Dolezal combined his footage with Broomfield’s.
There are elements of Whitney: Can I Be Me that an officially approved version might well have airbrushed out. Houston’s former bodyguard, for example, contends that he brought her dangerous drug use to the attention of her family, but since they were all on her payroll they did nothing about it – except fire him. Broomfield questions the way the family acted after Houston’s death, auctioning off possessions including her awards and gold records, and filming their own reality show (The Houstons: On Our Own) just eight months after she died. “They behaved in such an opportunistic fashion, I found it hard to work with that.”
If anything, Broomfield’s project benefited from receiving the seal of official disapproval. “I think half the people took part in my film because the estate sent them all emails telling them not to take part in it,” he says. “They thought: ‘Maybe this guy’s going to be saying something that we want to hear, that we can contribute to,’ because people were fiercely loyal to her, and they always thought she had been very misunderstood and the truth has never even vaguely come out.”
One area where Broomfield’s film suffers for being unauthorised, however, could be the music. Without access to Houston’s recorded back catalogue, her work is primarily conveyed by Dolezal’s concert footage, which leads to some omissions – later hits such as It’s Not Right But It’s Okay, for example, which could be seen as Houston’s creative peak. Given that the film takes its title from Houston’s desire to express herself and break out of her manufactured mould, it’s a pity they can’t use the work where she was arguably the most herself.
Macdonald, by contrast, has no such problem. “If you don’t have access to the music, why are you making a film about a musician?” he says. “Can you ever really make something which is definitively about an artist, and tries to understand the artist, if you don’t have the art? To me, authorised, when you’re trying to do these sort of things, is the only way to go.”
Macdonald cannot reveal too much about his film, but he seems to be approaching Houston from the other direction to Broomfield, and putting the music first. “We talk about the negative and all the toxicity, but what about the genius? And what about the social context and the simple question of why somebody so brilliant as she was ended up as she ended up.”
He accepts there is a certain quid pro quo with the estate: “People have an agenda, and I think their agenda’s fairly transparent and fairly harmless and understandable.” But he dismisses suggestions that he is toeing any party line: “I’ve not had on this film any sense of pressure to conform to a certain vision of who this person is in particular.”
Crucially, Macdonald has final cut for his film. He learned that lesson early on, he says, making a fly-on-the-wall doc with Mick Jagger in 2001. “It was great fun, but Mick and I ended up having a difference of opinion over what should be in the film.” Macdonald did not have the final say. “We came to an understanding, but it wasn’t a very creatively satisfying film for me. So I said to myself: ‘I’m not going to do one of these ever again.’”
Macdonald did return to the genre, however, with 2012’s acclaimed Marley, but only after Bob Marley’s extended family agreed not to interfere and let him tell the story his own way. “There were a couple of things, seeing the rough cut, where Ziggy [Marley’s eldest son] said: ‘My mother really hates this. Can you take it out?’ And I said: ‘No. We had an agreement.’ They understood the principle of it, which was that you have to have objectivity if you’re going to make a good film.”
Disagreements with documentary subjects are part of the territory, says Macdonald. “People see themselves differently than you see them. Someone else’s interpretation may be factually correct but challenging to your ego. You’re always balancing up being a human being and being a film-maker, I guess.”
Broomfield can relate to that. His habit of asking unwanted questions often gets him into trouble, sometimes threatening the whole project. Courtney Love vehemently opposed his Kurt & Courtney film, for example, for implicating her in Cobain’s death. As a result of her pressure, Broomfield’s co-funder, MTV, pulled out, the Sundance film festival cancelled its screening of the film, and he was not allowed to use any of Nirvana’s music. Of course, Broomfield put it all in the film, including his gatecrashing of Love’s American Civil Liberties Union award ceremony to berate her onstage for threatening press freedom. That’s about as unauthorised as it gets. “You have to find a way of amalgamating the problem into the story and using everything to your advantage,” he says. “Which is not easy.”
Love and her daughter, Frances, later backed their own authorised documentary, Cobain: Montage of Heck, which makes use of Cobain’s trove of demos, drawings and home recordings. The film sheds light on Cobain’s life and art, but doesn’t go into the areas Broomfield’s film did. To get a rounded view of Cobain, you would have to watch both.
The participation of associates and family members often skews the story. Estates have a vested interest in not just protecting their artists’ brand identity but promoting it, and protecting themselves. Last year’s NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton, for example, counted Dr Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright, among its producers, and was less keen to keep it real when it came to unpleasant episodes such as Dr Dre’s 1991 assault of TV presenter Dee Barnes, which he settled out of court. “Like many of the women that knew and worked with NWA, I found myself a casualty of Straight Outta Compton’s revisionist history,” complained Barnes. There is a lot of that revisionist history about. Biggie and Tupac have had their respective biopics: 2009’s Notorious (made with the input of Biggie’s mother, Voletta Wallace, who also helped Broomfield in his documentary) and, next week, the Tupac Shakur biopic All Eyez On Me. Meanwhile, Steve McQueen is working with Shakur’s estate on an “official” documentary, and Wallace is preparing an “official” Biggie documentary.
As film-makers start to outnumber potential subjects, the situation is becoming farcical. A few years ago, documentarian Alex Gibney told me about attending the 40th birthday party of Julian Assange, with whom he had been in talks for a year to make an inside account of the WikiLeaks saga. He wasn’t the only Oscar-calibre documentary-maker present, he discovered: Charles Ferguson and Laura Poitras were also there, each of them working on their own Assange project. It became something of a poker game. Gibney and Assange parted ways after Assange demanded $1m, and Gibney shifted his emphasis to Chelsea Manning for his 2013 film We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Ferguson abandoned his planned Assange dramatisation for HBO, perhaps in light of rival Assange movie The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
That left Poitras to claim the prize. Just as her Oscar-winning Citizenfour gave us a ringside seat on the Edward Snowden affair, so her new film, Risk, gets inside access to Assange, even accompanying him on his flight to the Ecuadorian embassy in London, disguised as a motorcycle courier. Risk screened at the Cannes film festival last year to some acclaim, but Poitras has since completely recut the film, following WikiLeaks’ involvement in leaking the Democratic National Committee’s emails during the 2016 US presidential election, and allegations about the organisation’s treatment of women. What was initially a largely favourable account of Assange now promises to be more of a critical exposé – which WikiLeaks’ lawyers are contesting. As Broomfield found with Kurt & Courtney, the only option seems to have been to incorporate the conflict into the story. “This is not the film I thought I was making,” Poitras’s voiceover announces in the trailer. “I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was wrong. They are becoming the story.”
The lines are blurring. Poitras seems to have crossed over from authorised to unauthorised, which often makes for a more interesting story. There is another line being blurred here, too: as Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed: “All biography is autobiography.” The pretence of objectivity when dealing with another person’s life story is pretty unsustainable, all things considered. That is not necessarily a bad thing: it gives film-makers the space to create a personal style, in a genre that was once constrained by rigid conventions. So the question these days is less “How would you like to be remembered?” than “Who would you like to be remembered by?”
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Manish wrote:^ Interesting read from the Guardian about the two Whitney documentaries, including some thoughts from Kevin MacDonald where he alludes to his approach with his film. Heartened to hear reference of Whitney's genius being important to his film. manish.
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