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Nick Broomfield turns his camera to the tragedy of Whitney Houston

Nick Broomfield and his subjects. Photo/Getty Images/Listener illustration

He’s pursued serial killers, madams and mistresses, dead rappers and rockers, extremists and the occasional world leader. Now, confrontational documentary-maker Nick Broomfield has turned his attention to the 80s pop superstar. 

In Nick Broomfield’s new film, you keep waiting for Nick Broomfield to turn up. He’s been in front of the camera in most of his documentaries, a polite, slightly bumbling Englishman armed with a boom microphone – a petard with which his subjects have frequently hoist themselves.

He’s pursued Sarah Palin and Margaret Thatcher; attempted to get answers about the murders of rappers Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur; investigated the suicide of Kurt Cobain and his relationship with Courtney Love. He made two docos about Florida serial killer Aileen Wuornos, one before, one after her execution and her portrayal by Charlize Theron in the movie Monster. And, in a career that stretches back to the 1970s, he’s gone from a maverick who has occasionally veered towards tawdry subjects to a respected pioneer of feature-length documentaries.

Often concentrating on the process of his encounters with his subjects and the obstacles he faced, his films have arguably helped make the work of the likes of Louis Theroux, Michael Moore and many others possible – and mainstream. Not that he is particularly proud of his influence.

“I started a trend that became all too popular,” he says ruefully, speaking from Los Angeles ahead of a visit to New Zealand to open the DocEdge documentary film festival. “It was great fun at the beginning. It was always fun doing something that’s new, because you surprise yourself.

“But people always want you to do what you have done before, which is funny now. I remember when I first put myself in the film, commissioning editors were all trying to persuade my producer to get me behind the camera. By the time people actually like it, you have got bored with doing it. It is always a bit like that. And you don’t want to keep doing the same thing.”

Broomfield’s father, Maurice, was a prominent photographer whose pictures of industrial Britain were acclaimed for their aesthetics and sense of post-war optimism. Nick went to university and film school and, in the 1970s, made small films that captured a country in decline. Who Cares? and Behind the Rent Strike looked at lives at the bottom of the social heap; Juvenile Liaison, which examined the Lancashire police’s treatment of young offenders, was banned after police pressure.

That ban, says Broomfield, made him opt for a career based in the US, initially doing behind-the-scenes showbiz docos. Even then, a supposedly authorised straightforward film about Lily Tomlin ended in a legal battle. His unhappy experience with the comedian and his disappointment with the finished film made him decide to make movies his way – and put himself in them.

The young film-maker armed with his signature boom microphone.

So began Broomfield’s run of docos starring himself, as he fronted up to intimidating figures such as Afrikaner nationalist and white supremacist Eugène Terre’Blanche, Love, and rap mogul Suge Knight. His latest documentary returns him to music and a posthumous study: Whitney: “Can I Be Me” looks at the rise, fall and 2012 death of 80s pop superstar Whitney Houston.

The new film combines archive material, frank interviews with those close to the star and footage from an unreleased on-the-road movie of her 1999 European tour. Broomfield persuaded Rudi Dolezal, the Austrian director of the tour film, to join forces on the doco.

But Broomfield isn’t in it. He decided that it wasn’t about him because he wasn’t chasing a conspiracy, as he was in Biggie and Tupac or Kurt and Courtney.

“Because it’s such a rich and complicated story, we didn’t want to do anything that would distract from it. We wanted Whitney to be the star. She had a long and complicated life, really. She started incredibly young: she was 17 when she kicked off, so it was already a challenge: how do you condense so much time and so many important relationships into that short time?”

Complete with compelling 1999 tour footage – there’s a telling scene of a sweating, exhausted Houston getting her make-up reapplied before an encore, looking like she’s got nothing more to give – the film is somewhat akin to the sad, sympathetic Amy Winehouse doco, Amy.

Can I Be Me is not just about how drugs killed the singer in 2012 at the age of 48; it’s about how her life, despite the fame and fortune, was never really hers. Broomfield examines how a teenage gospel singer from a tough New Jersey neighbourhood was moulded by Arista label boss Clive Davis into a pop star for white audiences – and how it left her feeling powerless.

Houston was just 19 when she signed with Arista Records boss Clive Davis. Photo/Alamy

It’s also about how her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her friend and personal assistant, left her caught in the crossfire between her strict mother, Cissy, and her eventual husband, Bobby Brown.

“[With] the intense pressure she was under and the disapproval that she encountered from so many people about her life and her relationship, I think it just became impossible to be her. She was making all this money for all these people, she brought so much joy, but she wasn’t allowed to be herself.”

Broomfield didn’t interview Davis, Brown, Crawford or Cissy Houston, although the movie doesn’t lack for footage of them from other sources. Most of his interviewees are Houston’s musicians, support staff (including her long-time bodyguard) and former record-company reps who were part of the machine that created the pop star and now have regrets.

“There was almost an apartheid within music companies and Whitney was the first, really. She was sort of a test case. She was put under incredible pressure because of that. I think it would be much easier now than it was for her then.”

Inevitably there were problems obtaining clearances for the music. Davis has his own biographical movie hitting screens. The Houston estate has its own official Whitney doco in the works but after battles over song use with Love and Shakur’s mother on previous films, Broomfield had experience of the pitfalls. He was still nervous about action against the film, right up until it debuted at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Houston was married to Bobby Brown for 15 years. Photo/Getty Images

“I remember Biggie Smalls mother became a firm friend and helped us enormously with making the film but other people like Courtney love and Afeni Shakur were just trying to make money themselves and control the estate, trying to rewrite history.”

The film arrives at a time when feature-length documentaries are finding audiences on pay television, video on demand and arthouse screens.

“There is certainly an appetite and documentary is no longer regarded as something boring, which was probably the thought when I started.”

After 40 years and 30 or so films, Broomfield has proved himself as a maker of non-boring docos. It was the only thing he was cut out for, he says, despite the suggestion of his school careers adviser that he become a librarian.

“When my mother was told this, she was just in uncontrollable hysterics. The only thing she was able to say in between her tears of laughter was, ‘No one would be able to find a book.’”

Nick Broomfield will attend the premiere of Whitney: “Can I Be Me” at the DocEdge Film Festival in Auckland, May 24. The film opens on May 25.

This article was first published in the May 27, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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