There were no doodie bubbles.
There was no bellowing of “Bobb-ayyyy!” Crack was not whack. Legacies were not ruined.
No, Lifetime’s hotly anticipated, perhaps even dreaded, Whitney Houston film, Whitney, was not a train wreck at all. It wasn’t even a train fender-bender.
After a series of made-for-TV films that ranged from seedy and preposterous (The Brittany Murphy Story) to out of its damned mind (House of Versace) to, even worse, embarrassingly bland (Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B), the expectation was that Whitney would be Lifetime’s crowning achievement in campy biopic garbage-pile fabulousness.
What Lifetime gave us, though, was even worse than that. It was boring.
Whitney—a half-open window into the period of Houston’s life from when she meets Bobby Brown to when “I Will Always Love You” turned her into a bigger star than anyone could ever imagine—is painfully straightforward. Directed by Angela Bassett, Whitney might be under the impression that it’s being bold and dangerous in shedding light on the more tumultuous elements of Houston’s life at the time: the matter-of-fact dependence on drugs, the explosive relationship with Brown and the toll it took on her career. But the truth is we all already knew about those things. We wanted more.
This is Whitney Houston. For the love of Clive Davis, show us some crazy!
Sure, there are hints of the soapy salaciousness we were hoping for. Much screen time is given to Houston’s childhood friend and longtime assistant Robyn Crawford—a woman who Houston was rumored to have a lesbian affair with. Of course, the film doesn’t overtly rule on whether or not Houston and Crawford were ever really lovers, instead just vaguely hinting at it.
The ambiguity is symptomatic of the greater problem with Whitney. It doesn’t take a stance on anything. Was Houston a lesbian? Was Bobby Brown a villain? Whose fault was her drug addiction? The film is too measured to answer any of those questions. Everyone’s actions are portrayed as reasoned. Every character is sympathetic. Passions rage, sure. But they always calm back down.
But this is not to say that Whitney is a bad movie.
It forces us to revisit, or maybe realize for the first time, how conflicted Houston was at the most successful time of her career. It chronicles her torture as she was pulled out of the domestic life and motherhood she wanted and forced back on tour after giving birth in order to strike when the iron’s hot. It’s tragic.
Equally tragic is the way it portrays the carnal attraction between Houston and Brown, shedding light on why Houston was never able to free herself from his destructive shackles—and the way their toxic relationship enabled her addictions. They were addicted to each other.
And Yaya DaCosta, the ice-princess America’s Next Top Model alum, is quite excellent playing the music’s legend.
Perhaps having the smugness slapped out of her by Oprah Winfrey in The Butler had the residual effect of loosening the talented, but typically constricted, actress up. Though DaCosta doesn’t do her own singing in the film, she undulates through a young Whitney Houston’s brittle emotions with the same mix of wanton recklessness and studied control the singer herself puts into her vocal runs.
There’s nothing really about DaCosta’s speaking voice or physical transformation that startles you into thinking the entertainment legend has been reincarnated on screen—at least not in the way that the film’s director, Angela Bassett, was able to do when portraying Tina Turner decades ago. But DaCosta sells every bead of drug-addled flop sweat in Houston’s big breakdowns, and is suitably heartbreaking playing the desperation, shock, and despair as Bobby Brown’s extra-marital dalliances come to light.
But this is a movie about Whitney Houston, so the next concern is the music scenes. And, truly, the music scenes are fun!
Lifetime only obtained the rights to a handful of Houston classics—don’t worry, “I Will Always Love You” is one—and it’s when performing them that DaCosta’s performance really comes alive.
She nails that wily, sassy side-eyed gaze Whitney always gave when she was singing, and gets in the groove of her signature shoulder pops and shoop-shoop slide-y neck moves. You know what I’m talking about. That thing where she moves her neck from side to side and it’s all loosey-goosy and smooth and slick. I’m doing it in my chair right now. An entire office is laughing at me. And I don’t care because I’M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE DOING IT.
That’s really, too, where DaCosta deserves the most credit. She digs into those musical performances like she’s all of us. She mimes them like she’s in her childhood bedroom, the boombox is cranked up full blast, and she’s looking at herself in the mirror while mouthing the words to “I’m Your Baby Tonight” with all the conviction of Whitney Houston performing on the Grammy stage. Who wouldn’t love to do that? We all would. Who hasn’t done that. We all have. It’s a privilege to do on screen, and one that DaCosta blessedly seems to take seriously.
Unfortunately, it’s everyone else in the film—and everything else about the film—that takes itself too seriously.
To be fair, we should be praising the baby steps taken here. This is a Lifetime movie that doesn’t bastardize the name of the celebrity it purports to portray. It’s a Lifetime movie with actual acting. Actual entertainment value. With an actual plot! Some early reviews are marveling that Whitney might actually be good, which—hold on there. Let’s not take it too far.
Whitney may be a largely inoffensive and competently executed biopic, but it also misses the point of its existence. There is a world of Whitney Houston fans out there just clamoring for the movie about her life that is going to do her dramatic life, wrenching death, and incomparable legacy justice. This one was never going to be that. And it should go without saying that it most definitely is not that.
So what we have here is a classic case of filmmakers and a network not understanding its audience and what it wants. Hi, Lifetime! I’m your audience. And I wanted an operatically trashy and creatively questionable movie about Whitney Houston that I could laugh off and even appreciate as ridiculous camp. Sadly, the by-the-numbers blandness of Whitney is a far cry from that.