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Can A 'Whitney' Biopic Beat Watching Whitney Houston?

Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston in Lifetime's <em>Whitney</em>.
Jack Zeman
Yaya DaCosta as Whitney Houston in Lifetime's Whitney.

The high bar that a biopic about Whitney Houston has to clear is essentially this: Is it better than just watching YouTube videos of Whitney Houston singing?Does it somehow tell you more, open her up more, explain her legacy more? Because honestly, all it takes is watching her sing to understand why she was as beloved as she was, from her arrival as a 21-year-old phenomenon through her The Bodyguardsuperstardom and the shocking news that she had died the night before the 2012 Grammy Awards. Her legacy is not curious, and unfortunately, her personal troubles, while enormously sad, aren't on their own surprising.

Meanwhile, director Angela Bassett has her own legacy: an Oscar nomination – earned from her relevant experience as the star of the Tina Turner biopic What's Love Got To Do With It?, which made her a star – and appearances in popular movies like Waiting To Exhaleand How Stella Got Her Groove Back, among many others, and now a run on television's American Horror Story. Her directorial debut is Whitney, airing Saturday on Lifetime, which attempts to clear that high bar.

There's a recent history of behind-the-scenes Lifetime movies that have been poorly received, to put it kindly: at Vulture, its Aaliyah biopic was called "a soulless retelling of familiar stories that lacked the ability to communicate whyAaliyah was so important and meant so much to fans." Its Saved By The Belland Brittany Murphy films were treated largely as bad-wig theater.

Whitneyis not that. It isn't campy and it isn't terrible, and star Yaya DaCosta – who many of us first saw as the runner-up on the third season of America's Next Top Modelyears ago – plays Houston earnestly and credibly, based on the segment of Houston's life, from roughly 1989 to 1994, that the film chooses to focus on. Primarily, it's interested in the arc of Houston's relationship with Bobby Brown (played by Arlen Escarpeta), from the time they met until the success of The Bodyguard.

It winds up being a strangely paced and somewhat arbitrary chunk taken out of their relationship, poking along for about three-fourths of the running time portraying them as a nearly perfect couple before introducing in the final act the first suggestions that her fame has placed strain on their marriage. And then the movie kind of ... ends.

The problem with doing biographical work is that the obvious arc in a life is birth to death, and that's usually too much for a movie. The same could be said for a marriage: they could certainly have framed the film around the marriage from meeting (or wedding) to breakup (which happened in 2006). But when you don't choose one of those obvious arcs, you need a structure that explains why you're showing this particular chapter in the person's life. You still have to tell a coherently structured story – the fact that there are real events doesn't change that. The script here seems badly off, in that it's 75 percent introduction and then 25 percent building conflict, and then she sings "I Will Always Love You" at the Grammys and it's over.

It's dangerous to get too much into trying to analyze motives in a situation like this, but it feels at times like Bassett and her team are disheartened by what happened to the images of Houston and Brown – who later wound up on a Bravo reality show that The Hollywood Reportermemorably called "undoubtedly the most disgusting and execrable series ever to ooze its way onto television." There's an obvious effort to be fair, to convey that they loved each other and loved their daughter, and that their marriage contained moments of joy.

But that effort to bring a level of fairness to the story results in an almost complete flattening of both Houston and Brown into forgettable, unerringly nice people who just have some external issues going on. The edge that emerged in Houston's personality – as when she memorably told Diane Sawyer she was too rich to smoke crack – may have surprised people who saw her as a perfect icon, but it was also interesting, and it was part of her, and there's not a whiff of it here. There's not a whiff of the part of Whitney Houston that could revel in being a big deal, and being rich, and telling people who didn't like it that she didn't care if they didn't like it. That was part of her personality and eventually part of her persona, and sanding all those edges off to emphasize her as sympathetic to the point where she appears to have been born without a temper at all doesn't actually do the movie any favors.

Unfortunately, when the script, from Shem Bitterman (who also co-wrote the script for Lifetime's Betty And Coretta, about Betty Shabazz and Coretta Scott King, played by Mary J. Blige and Angela Bassett herself), tries to underline themes that are certainly worth exploring, it does so clumsily. It's entirely possible that Brown struggled with friends who believed he had changed since he became famous, but when one in the film who's just out of jail says to him, "What happened when I was in the joint, man? You go soft on me?", that feels perhaps a little blunt. And then, when Brown responds by snorting some cocaine after resisting drugs for most of the film, the friend says, "There you go, that's that Bobby I grew up with!" This kind of stuff about identity and fame is actually pretty fascinating as an idea, but you have to do more than just plunk it into the movie like you're holding up a flash card.

DaCosta does not do the singing here; it's from Deborah Cox, who has chops like crazy. But ... she's not Whitney Houston. She's unavoidably not Whitney Houston, and no matter how powerful any other female singer is, Houston was singular, and her seemingly effortless manipulation of her own voice was part of her art. You can't explain Whitney Houston without her voice any more than you can explain Picasso by looking at other really good paintings.

In the end, you really are better off with the YouTube videos.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.