81ºF

Miami Beach resident tackles tough subject in new Whitney Houston documentary

Rudi Dolezal has fulfilled promise to departed pop star with release of film

Whitney Houston poses with Rudi Dolezal, co-director of "Whitney: Can I Be Me," in 1999.
Whitney Houston poses with Rudi Dolezal, co-director of "Whitney: Can I Be Me," in 1999. (Rudi Dolezal)


PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. – Rudi Dolezal is keeping a promise.

It's a promise he made to Whitney Houston nearly two decades ago, years before the pop star drowned in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub, the result of excessive cocaine use, at the age of 48.

Dolezal has been living in Miami Beach since 2006, far across the globe from his birthplace of Vienna, Austria. When the towering filmmaker with the long, rock star-like hair decided to move to the U.S., Miami Beach and New York were his only choices.

"Miami Beach, I fell in love with it," Dolezal told Local10.com, recalling the decision to settle down in the heart of South Beach.

Maybe that's because, in contrast to New York, Dolezal can soak up the tropical climate.

On any given day, one might see him looking out at the ocean from his office on Collins Avenue, content in his shorts, a T-shirt and flip-flops. Sometimes he'll take a break from his work to walk along the beach and savor his surroundings.

But, make no mistake: Dolezal didn't flock to the beach just for fun.

"I'm not doing the obvious things that always people think," Dolezal said, his thick, Austrian accent affirming his statement. "I'm not going to parties every night. I'm not a cocaine addict. I'm not laying on the beach every day."

Dolezal, 59, is one-half the man behind the new documentary, "Whitney: Can I Be Me," which is making its television debut Friday evening on Showtime. The film chronicles Houston's life, career and struggle with drug addiction.

Growing up in the city that gave rise to Beethoven and Mozart, the 59-year-old owner of DoRo Films International was trained in classical music, but he always had an ear to rock 'n' roll. He started working in film at the age of 17 and, never forgetting his musical inclinations, began to compile an impressive list of credits, directing thousands of music videos and live concerts for Queen, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen, just to name a few.

"I stopped counting after 5,000," Dolezal said, only half-joking.

In fact, it was Dolezal's love for the genre that sent him packing for America, fleeing a "country completely unimportant to rock music."

But not before his first meeting with Houston in 1999 that became the catalyst for his yearslong involvement in the documentary that would become "Can I Be Me."

'I want you to do a film like this about me'

Dolezal was putting the finishing touches on a music video for Houston when the pop star traveled to Austria one rainy Sunday afternoon to give her final approval. Houston was looking to kill some time after they were done, so Dolezal asked if he could show her some of his work.

Whitney Houston poses with Rudi Dolezal when they first met in 1985.
Whitney Houston poses with Rudi Dolezal when they first met in 1985.

He had just completed "Freddy Mercury: The Untold Story," which would earn him his second Grammy Award nomination for best long form music video, and was eager to show it off. As it so happened, Houston was a fan of the Queen frontman, so she watched the yet-unreleased film.

"Then, she says, 'Do you have anything else?'" Dolezal said.

Next up was a film that Dolezal made when the Stones toured Argentina a year earlier.

"And halfway through the Stones documentary, she stops and she says, 'Rudi, I want you to do a film like this about me,'" he said.

Dolezal didn't waste any time, getting to work the next day as she embarked on her 1999 European tour. By the end of the tour, Dolezal had amassed about 500 hours of backstage footage.

Once he had assembled a rough cut to show to her, Houston was already back at home in New Jersey.

"And then one day I opened the newspaper and I read, 'Whitney Houston sent home from the Academy Awards because of cocaine addiction,'" Dolezal recalled. "She was too high to sing her songs."

'She was in complete denial'

Troubled by the headline, Dolezal called Houston and told her, "We never talked about drugs in that documentary."

Houston shrugged it off, but Dolezal persisted.

"The story has to be told," he opined.

Finally, he decided to meet with her.

Singer Whitney Houston is seen performing on stage during the 2004 World Music Awards at the Thomas and Mack Center on Sept. 15, 2004 in Las Vegas.
Singer Whitney Houston is seen performing on stage during the 2004 World Music Awards at the Thomas and Mack Center on Sept. 15, 2004 in Las Vegas.

"I said, 'Whitney, I have a solution,'" Dolezal recalled. "I came to her in her house, where I witnessed things that I rather would have chosen not to witness, and let's leave it at that. And then I said, 'Whitney, I have the following suggestion: We do a short interview here in your house, you say something in the neighborhood of, 'Yes, I have a substance problem, but I'm working on it.' That's all. The fans will love it.

"And she says, 'No, I cannot do this. I don't have a substance problem.' She was in complete denial. I said, 'Well, then, this footage is not going to be released,' and I went home to Vienna."

It was the last time Dolezal saw Houston.

'I actually buried the project'

Dolezal had decided that he wanted to tell the whole story of Houston. He interviewed Burt Bacharach, the music director who sent her home from the Oscars.

Many of the interviews for "Can I Be Me" were conducted at his studio in Miami Beach. The '99 tour footage "is the nucleus of it."

But Houston's management team and record label all had different visions for the film.

Dolezal said there had been at least three attempts through the years to release the footage, but the most serious discussion coincided with the release of her "Greatest Hits" album.

Whitney Houston performs at Mediolanum Forum on May 3, 2010 in Milan, Italy.
Whitney Houston performs at Mediolanum Forum on May 3, 2010 in Milan, Italy.

"I felt like a musician who has written his best song, and nobody's ever going to hear it," he said. "That was how I felt as an artist. Because I knew that this was special, and it was special because of Whitney."

Although he owned the footage, he didn't own the music -- a necessity for any musical documentary -- so Dolezal couldn't come to an agreement with the parties involved.

"So I actually buried the project, yeah, and then Whitney passed," Dolezal said.

It was Feb. 11, 2012.

"The next day, my phone doesn't stop ringing," Dolezal said.

'Rudi Dolezal keeps his word'

Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions, Sony, music producer Clive Davis, who is credited with discovering Houston, were among those after his footage. They were willing to pay -- and pay big. But, as tempting as the offers may have been, the footage wasn't for sale.

Recording artists Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and producer Clive Davis pose for photographers during the15th annual Ella Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sept.12, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California.
Recording artists Dionne Warwick, Whitney Houston and producer Clive Davis pose for photographers during the15th annual Ella Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on Sept.12, 2006 in Beverly Hills, California.

"I'm probably the only one who's said no to Clive Davis," Dolezal said.

He wanted to make the movie himself. Not just because he is a filmmaker, but also because of a promise.

"Because when I was sitting in that editing room with Whitney Houston, she said to me, 'Rudi, I want you to do a film like this about me,' and if I sell it, I cannot control if they make a film like this," he said.

There was no contract; just a promise.

"Rudi Dolezal keeps his word," he said.

'I feel I have fulfilled my promise'

Years later, fate intervened when Dolezal came into the company of the man who would become his "Can I Be Me" co-director.

Nick Broomfield, a legendary documentary film director whose previous works include "Biggie & Tupac" and Kurt & Courtney," happened to be working on his own Houston documentary at the time.

Rudi Dolezal reads some press material about "Whitney: Can I Be Me" during a visit to the Local 10 News studio, Aug. 23, 2017, in Pembroke Park, Florida.
Rudi Dolezal reads some press material about "Whitney: Can I Be Me" during a visit to the Local 10 News studio, Aug. 23, 2017, in Pembroke Park, Florida.

"So he came and watched the footage, and then he said, 'Rudi, why don't we do this film together?'" Dolezal said.

And so a partnership was formed.

The collaboration finally allowed Dolezal to finish what he had started.

In addition to his '99 footage, Dolezal shot new interviews with friends and family, among them Houston's mother and the personal assistant who found Houston in the bathtub. Broomfield's contributions include the interview with Houston's bodyguard, who revealed to her management team and family that she had a drug addiction. He was promptly fired.

Dolezal said he is satisfied with the final result.

"I feel I have fulfilled my promise to Whitney Houston," Dolezal said.

'It can't be stopped'

Getting "Can I Be Me" released wasn't easy.

Houston's family tried to stop the film from being shown before its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, suing Dolezal. He won.

"It's out now," Dolezal said. "It can't be stopped."

He called the family's attempts to interfere with the release "absolutely disappointing." For more than three years, Dolezal said he was "closely cooperating with the estate" on the film.

Things started turning sour when the family pressured him to remove interviews with Houston's friend Robyn Crawford, who was reported in the tabloids to be her lesbian lover, and ex-husband Bobby Brown, who also battled drug addiction.

In this Oct. 13, 1997 file photo, Whitney Houston and her husband Bobby Brown attend a premiere at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
In this Oct. 13, 1997 file photo, Whitney Houston and her husband Bobby Brown attend a premiere at Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

"I am not a filmmaker who does work for hire," Dolezal said.

He said the family is planning its own documentary.

"To be honest, I'll be very surprised after 'Can I Be Me' what is left to say," Dolezal said.

A single father to two boys, ages 10 and 14, Dolezal has his eye to the future now. His next project is a documentary on his friend Falco, a one-hit wonder in the U.S. best known for his 1980s song "Rock Me Amadeus." Dolezal directed the music video.

There is a sense of relief now that "Can I Be Me" is behind him.

"Because this horrible feeling that you've written the best song and nobody's ever going to hear it, that feeling is now gone," Dolezal said. "Some of my best stuff is in 'Can I Be Me,' and it's out now."

Throughout the making of the film, Dolezal wanted to keep his promise to Houston, but he also wanted a truthful portrayal of her.

"For some people, it's going to be an inconvenient truth, but my aim as a filmmaker and as somebody who has given the promise to Whitney, but not only because of that, is because at the end of the film, people still must love Whitney Houston," he said. "I'm not interested in destroying Whitney Houston."


About the Author: