The late Whitney Houston, who died in 2012 at age 48, was one of the greatest singers of all time, so her biopic had a lot to prove.
Making an earnest attempt to live up to that challenge, theLifetime network, saddled as it is by a history of hilariously atrocious treatments of celebrity lives (like Liz and Dick) seems to have made a solid choice in putting Houston’s Waiting to Exhaleco-star Angela Bassett at the helm.
In her directorial debut, Bassett–no stranger to tumultuous singers’ lives, having earned an Oscar nomination as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It–does a commendable job squishing Houston’s lifetime of bad choices, career highs and personal lows into just two hours. The result is a patchwork quilt of a crazy, colorful life–and in some ways, it works.
The costume designer, Mona May, was on-point with the lace-and-leather ensembles, sequined gowns, and retro looks that captured the era (find out more about May’s work here). Deborah Cox is one of the few singers in the world who can even approximate Ms. Houston’s melismatic style and did a suitably incredible job with the vocals. And actress and America’s Next Top Model alumna Yaya DaCosta did a mean Whitney head shake, too.
But when Houston’s family comes out warning fans to “brace themselves for the worst,” it’s also probably a good idea to buckle up. As they say in the film: Time to be Whitney Houston!
The biopic focuses less on Whitney’s life and more about her love affair with Bobby “My Prerogative” Brown (as played by Arlen Escarpeta). It might have more aptly been named “Whitney and Bobby.”
Naturally, their story begins when Whitney falls madly in love with Bobby at the Soul Train awards in 1989, despite the fact that he yelled at her for kicking his chair. All is forgiven when he performs in white satin and white Reeboks and flashes his six-pack abs in her general direction. Backstage, they set a date and Bobby promises to pick her up the Hilton, which is probably the same Hilton where she passed away later. In televised biopics, foreshadowing is your friend.
When Whitney sings “The Greatest Love of All,” Bobby is smitten, too. Their first date is on Rodeo Drive, where they are swarmed by fans. Soon enough, as one might guess, they are torn asunder by the demands of stardom.
Then, a shirtless Bobby gets a heck of a mail delivery: A check for over $24,000,000 and an invitation to Whitney’s 25th birthday party. (Note to self: find mail key.) He puts a shirt on for the occasion. At the party, Whitney offers Bobby some cocaine, but he tsks tsks tsks and says he doesn’t do such things because he’s “seen too many bad outcomes.” (Did you feel that foreshadowing there?)
Whitney takes him to her studio and he continues to play the straight man to her party girl, but it’s their shared love of Sparkle that really brings them together. So when Whitney sings “How Will I Know?” the answer is: he loves Sparkle, too! Then Bobby tells her, “I used to think that you were some kind of goddess, but you’re way more than that: you’re real,” and you can practically see her heart go pitter-pat over that malarkey, because girls are silly like that.
At Clive Davis’s office, the orange spectacle wearing music impresario tells her not to date Eddie Murphy or wear yellow (wisdom to live by), and hooks her up with his new-hire LA Reid, who is already working with Bobby Brown. On another date, Bobby tells her that he has two kids and “takes care of his responsibilities.” Even though his children live in Boston with their moms, he does “right by them.” After that heartfelt speech, they consummate their relationship in a hail of gold chains, elastic-waisted pants and a reggae soundtrack.
Cut to another ballroom where Whitney is getting an award and a really poorly cast Eddie Murphy stand-in is presenting her with said award in a lascivious manner via a remote video link from the set ofAnother 48 Hours, and Bobby is not having it. He gives Whitney a hard time in the limo ride home, but she is able to tease him out of his bad mood. (Yes, that is foreshadowing you hear.) They make up in the bedroom, but their detente is temporary. Bobby wants to take things to the next level, but when she wants to slow things down. He balks, because he “loves her too much” and takes off. She does a few lines of cocaine, because it’s easier than feelings.
Whitney heads to the studio with a new hairstyle and a new tune, “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” but it’s the same old song: She grills everyone for details about Bobby Brown. The producer launches into a study of Bobby’s personality that would make an FBI profiler proud. Back at home, Whitney watches a movie alone in bed and eats some sad soup and thinks about her feelings. Then she calls Bobby. He’s in Boston with his baby and his Baby Mama, but when Whitney calls, he jumps. His Baby Mama gives him some real-talk about how it’s never going to work. Cut to the bedroom where it is working—and anyone watching with their parents just got very uncomfortable.
Bobby is soon announcing, “I make love and I make eggs.” His eggs are served with a side of bologna, though. When Whitney asks him where he was last night, he admits he was with another woman, but he swears he loves her most of all and she fell for it. Girls in biopics are silly like that. When he proposes, she says yes.
Whitney brings her friends and estranged parents together to tell everyone the good news. When she says, “I’m getting married!” Her mother replies, “It better not be to Bobby Brown.” But, of course, it is. Luckily, he’s not there to hear what his future in-laws think of him, because why would he be there for his own engagement party?
After facing off against her parents, she comes home to find Bobby moping in the foyer. He ruins her good mood with two little words: “She pregnant.” The news make Whitney run straight to her cocaine stash. She does a line while Bobby begs for another chance and promises that he loves her and isn’t going back to his Baby Mama. Whitney hugs him. Blame the cocaine. Read more “Time”…