After a string of atrocious biopics — Aaliyah or Brittany Murphy, anyone? — there’s a lot riding on Whitney, Lifetime’s latest project. Given Whitney Houston’s status as one of music’s most legendary figures, and the fact that she passed away less than three years ago, the frothy network isn’t exactly treading over light waters. However, it looks like hell officially froze over: Whitney isn’t terrible! But that doesn’t mean it’s great, either.
It’s melodramatic at times, but — hey!— it’s Lifetime. Also, it’s very early to be telling Houston’s story. (The singer died in 2012.) However, rest assured this film is handled much better than both Aaliyah and Murphy (if that says anything at all). The key is the precise and respectful direction of American Horror Story star Angela Bassett (this is her first gig behind the camera). Not once does Bassett forget the gravity of Houston’s legacy, and she succeeds in painting a portrait of a well-loved superstar — played capably by Yaya DaCosta — who fell victim to a whirlwind romance with Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta) and a serious drug addiction.
Let’s break down why Whitney doesn’t totally suck:
Casting as a whole isn’t as offensive as Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B.
The Aaliyah film came under serious fire for casting lighter-skinned actors to play Missy Elliott and Timbaland. Critics also drew attention to the fact that actress Chattrisse Dolabaille was too thin to play the then-full-figured Elliott. Whitney airs on the side of caution and chooses actors who physically resemble their real-life counterparts. In some scenes, DaCosta and Houston look almost identical. Escarpeta captures Brown’s magnetism and singular ’90s fashion sense. Suzzanne Douglas is also a suitable fit for Houston’s strong-willed mother, Cissy.
We hear some hit songs.
Another drawback to the Aaliyah movie? Its sheer lack of the singer’s classic tunes. Thankfully, Whitney delivers the goods. “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “I’m Every Woman” (a highlight), and “I Will Always Love You” all get the Lifetime treatment. Is it Houston-level? Obviously not, but we appreciate Lifetime for being brave enough to take a crack at Houston’s catalog. It makes the film feel more complete.
DaCosta (actually, Deborah Cox is the one singing) does Houston justice vocally.
People who scream, “She’s no Whitney Houston!” need to sit down and shut up. Of course she isn’t! No one is. Houston is arguably the greatest pop vocalist who ever lived, and anyone who attempts to mimic her sound will fail to reach her greatness. However, Cox does a pretty damn good job trying. Her voice is lower than Houston’s, so the vocals don’t ever quite hit that angelic whistle sound we know and love. Even still, Cox sounds robust, confident, and full in her delivery of some of Houston’s most iconic hits.
The acting is solid (for Lifetime).
Melodrama rears its ugly head more than a few times in the movie —”If you can’t accept my man, you can’t accept me,” Whitney tells her mother in one soap-tastic scene — but the performances are better than past Lifetime films. DaCosta captures Houston’s zest for life and music, while the supporting characters are perfectly harmless. Let’s put the pitchforks down on this one, guys.
It doesn’t sugarcoat Houston’s struggles.
The Brittany Murphy Story was a total mess and managed to completely glaze over the Clueless star’s personal struggles. Whitney tastefully addresses Houston’s issues head on, meaning — yes — we see her do drugs. In the flick, Houston frequently turns to cocaine to deal with emotional stress, notably Brown’s alleged infidelity. Her plight reaches a fever pitch when Brown admits during a private rehab session that Houston is an addict, and the story spreads like wildfire. In a confrontation, Houston insists she doesn’t have a problem before erupting in a hysterical fit. We don’t see Houston’s addiction in her later years — the film only addresses a specific period of time in her life, which is another asset — but what we do see comes off genuine.
Houston’s mother is well presented, despite her grievances about the project.
Cissy Houston and her family disapproved of Whitney last year, telling Entertainment Tonight, “Please let her rest.” However, the film was still kind and characterized Cissy as a protective, loving, and strong mother. When Whitney announces her engagement to Brown, Cissy is the first to raise concerns. Viewers will finish the film thinking Cissy is a wonderful woman who only wanted the best for her daughter.
The production doesn’t look cheap.
The Brittany Murphy Story looks like it was filmed over three days in someone’s backyard. (Need we remind you of that gosh-awful Alicia Silverstone wig?) However, nothing about Whitney feels shoddy. Rather, the performance sequences are vivid, the costumes feel representative of the era, and the sets don’t look cheap. While we think any Houston film deserves the big-screen treatment, what we have here isn’t bad at all.
It’s not biased toward Houston or Brown.
No one will ever really know what went on between Houston and Brown, but this film does a good job showing both of their strengths and weaknesses. It’s a common belief that Brown is a drug-addled monster who sucked Houston into a life of addiction. However, this film makes him a sympathetic character; he seems to truly love Houston and cherish her spirit. In fact, the movie suggests Houston was doing drugs long before Brown (a tidbit that will undoubtedly be a topic of heated debate after the film’s release). Halfway through the movie, though, we see a different perspective. Brown becomes agitated with Houston’s blossoming fame and begins showing his darker side. Houston then looks like the victim in all of this. Because the details are so fuzzy, Lifetime smartly mediates the story by presenting varying perspectives. We end the movie liking both main characters, despite their flaws.
Was this unauthorized? Yes. Are there facts filmmakers didn’t get exactly right? Probably. Is is too soon to be making a Whitney Houston movie? Many say yes. However, Whitney never feels exploitative and, instead, cherishes what Houston’s family holds most dear: her love. Instead of slapping us with messy and offensive bits of dwindling pop star schtick, the movie keeps it simple and, at times of uncertainty, plays it safe. Whitney Houston wasn’t “every woman” as she sang in the early ’90s. She was the woman. While Whitney doesn’t do anything to help the music queen’s legacy, it doesn’t hurt it either. And that’s perhaps a greater victory when it’s all said (or sung) and done.
What did you think of Lifetime’s Whitney? Let us know in the comments below.
[Photo Credits: Lifetime, Getty]