Interview - Nick Broomfield
Speaking to Nick Broomfield on Friday 9th June 2017 seemed to make perfect sense. The election results were now in and the country no longer appeared to be sleepwalking to oblivion. A chink of light, the future may not turn out to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul after all.
There she stood with that odd Marvel-super-villain-creature-stance of hers, the great disturber of wheat-fields and the NHS and the dreams of the un-wealthy, Theresa May(hem), exposed in HD, floundering in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell’s unprecedented political fight back. A gutted winner.
Played out amidst a backdrop of media skulduggery like no other and set in a less than United Kingdom, here was obvious fodder for a filmmaker who revels in the fragmented narratives of modern disorder.
Ever since his little-seen Juvenile Liaison documentary (1975), centred around a disturbing problem-child project in Blackburn – described by The Guardian as ‘The film the police arrested.’ – through to his last film Tales of the Grim Sleeper (2014), he has cast a customary light on conniving techniques used by blatant bullies to exploit their prey in the most urgent and ruthless of ways.
Like Werner Herzog, he openly denies any notion of objectivity in his films. He takes sides and chooses to intensify the facts at his disposal instead of balancing them.
His latest documentary film – Whitney: Can I Be Me – is less an investigation along the lines of his previous music biopics Kurt & Courtney (1998) and Biggie and Tupac (2002), and more a tragic study of a superstar with a huge heart, prone to compromise and confusion, who appeared to have rented out a life that she didn’t want to live in.
I watched the film after streaming episode four of Twin Peaks season three. Their narratives dovetailed in many ways; two recent period pieces about fallen beauties – the great American potential of female beauty lost to drugs and misguided love. And when beauty like that is gone it leaves a devastating wound, which swells through the decades. Re-open the wound and what do you uncover?
Q: Did you have a set template in mind when you approached this project?
A: I didn’t really know what film I was going to make when I went into it. I had a very open-mind. At first I was going to be part of the film then when I got all that amazing footage from Rudi Dolezal my co-director I was very happy to pull myself out of the film. We had so much unseen footage and it was such a revealing film about Whitney Houston that people hadn’t seen like what incredible fun she was and all those amazing performances.
Q: In many ways I see it as an art installation of sorts – a hypnotic study of a performer along similar lines to the work of the Scottish-artist Douglas Gordon...
A: Rudy had shot them so beautifully. There were actually probably 10-camera set-ups and I mainly took the footage from the one camera that was in front of her on rails because she’s kind of like a prize-fighter up there, making a real reach for those notes, sweating. You can see how she’s really pushing herself. It’s quite painful sometimes to do it but she’s really pumping it out there. Being that close to her is so intimate that it makes you see her genius.
Q: I think that’s as much a part of her physical generosity as well as her spiritual generosity, that she gives so much to the audience...
A: She gives everything and she’s not like Madonna with lots of other dancers and stuff. It’s just her. Her performance is very earthy. She’s gone back to her roots.
Q: Oddly, she appears to have been written out of that celebrated 80s musical canon of Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna et al – and yet she was also at the heart of it, maybe even the real heart of it given her extraordinary acts of kindness in this film...
A: I think people where so judgemental about her at the end of her life because of her drug addiction. People are always tempted to write people off for one thing or another or judge them very harshly without really trying to look further. I’m guilty of that myself. I think she was an amazing person who deserves to be celebrated. That was kind of a revelation to me. I didn’t expect that going in.
Q: Is there anybody in particular that you would have liked to have had the chance to speak to?
A: Probably Robyn Crawford [Houston’s long-term confidante and lesbian lover]. I have a feeling I will at some stage.
Q: I think she would make a great documentary in herself...
A: Yes. She’s quite a big character in the film. You get a very strong sense of her relationship with Whitney. I don’t know if you really need an interview with her to understand it. I would have just been curious to have met her. I’m sure I will at some point, because for me in many ways she’s the heroine, the angel on Whitney’s shoulder.
Q: For me it’s got a distinctly 50s melodrama feel with a modern bi-sexual love triangle twist. There’s a real romantic spine to it...
A: There is definitely a romantic spine to it. And then there is this weird threesome relationship.
Q: There’s obvious love there when Robyn is watching her side-stage...
A: So in love. It’s almost like they’re singing the song to each other.
Q: I also see it as much a portrait of Houston as it a portrait of America at it’s best but also at it’s most vulgar and unforgiving...
A: That’s true. She was very much a victim of her own political black background, growing up in the ghetto, being the way out of the ghetto for this enormous entourage of family and friends and Bobby Brown’s family and friends. It was an enormous weight on her shoulders. It’s very much a timepiece of America also with its attitudes to sexual behaviour being gay, being disapproving of this, that and the other. America is a very puritan place and I think she had a very hard time.
Towards the end of her life on her last tour in 2009, it’s kind of a disaster. She looks bloated and overweight and her voice has just gone. She just can’t do it. It’s really painful to see her like that. That’s the footage that I don’t have much of.
Q: There are threads of her story in the lives of other superstar musicians like Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash who also had problems with the tangle of religious beliefs, their own vices and their own family duties...
A: I think that’s true. In some ways the black church is - even today -completely homophobic in a way that’s more extreme than probably other places I think. There’s quite a lot of homosexuality in the black church but it’s completely denied and swept under the carpet particularly between women. And I think this was an impossible thing for Whitney because she was deeply religious and being condemned by her church was really tough.
Q: But without that tension you don’t get the power of the music...
A: No, you don’t. That’s exactly where it comes from. Her closest friends were all very Christian. People like Pattie Howard who had also been in gospel choirs growing up. Very very Christian. They were the people that Whitney spoke to. They were her closest friends.
Q: We’ve had a recent spate of these epically tragic and drawn-out tales of tragedy about Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, and Mike Tyson and now we’ve got Bill Cosby and Tiger Woods – where is the white equivalent of these particularly grim declines?
A: I think you’re absolutely right. I think being black carries a particular weight with it, particularly the weight of identity. A lot of those black stars paid an enormous price for being accepted by a white audience and they have all ended up in a kind of no-mans land. The obvious ones being OJ Simpson and Michael Jackson trying to make himself more white at the same time hating white people. That’s a particular contradiction that comes from living in a deeply racist country that has barely recovered from slavery.
Q: Digressing, one of my favourite films of yours is Juvenile Liaison, which in my eyes has never lost its relevance and social bite. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about re-re-visiting those streets...
A: We did go back once to revisit and it was pretty devastating. Two of my favourite kids were on heroin and I remember their last words were: “We won’t be here when you come back.” Blackburn was such a desolate place.
Q: What are you’re thoughts on the current – very current - Teresa May-hem situation?
A: I’m so pleased. It would be great to do a documentary on the first 100 hundred days – whatever happens next. It’s brought back hope. It’s brought back a debate. I think it’s very healthy. It would have been a disaster to have an out and out Theresa May victory. I think she’s very unsophisticated: a sort-of heathen at heart who does not deserve to lead this country. No finesse. No elegance. And I think we’re going to end up with something so much better now.
Q: I think she embodies this educated-philistine type of character that has been ruining England for some time now. To not even be able to lie very well seems like the end of a certain era of politics...
A: Yes – there’s something very brutish about her. And I think we have had some great politicians in the past – maybe not in the last five years – but we’ve had some amazing leaders some of which have not been elected and some of which who have and I don’t think she is anywhere near like anything we have had in the past.
Whitney: Can I Be Me can be seen in selected cinemas across the country from 16 June.
Austin Collings is the author of Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E Smith and The Myth of Brilliant Summers.
Image - David Curio.