A man lays on the floor next to broken glass, collapsed from a drug overdose. His high-as-a-kite wife steps over his frame, kicking and taunting him. “Imma start without choo, Imma start without choo,” she chants, nicking the baggie next to his lifeless body.
Truthfully, it’s a bit shocking to see Whitney Houston (Gabrielle Dennis, vivacious) portrayed as a coke-fueled, emasculating succubus only months after a sensitive new documentary revealed she was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. But following the release of three Whitney films since 2015 and even a vulturous TV biopic about the tragic life of daughter Bobbi Kristina, ex-husband and singer Bobby Brown is now clearly asking, “What About Bobby?” BET’s cheaply made (though endlessly watchable) miniseries The Bobby Brown Story unfortunately comes off as a different kind of #MeToo story — one that posits, “What if abusers were the true victims all along?”
Serving as a sequel of sorts to BET’s 2017 mini The New Edition Story, the two-night biopic is so authorized my screener already included multiple Spotify ads for Brown’s music. In fact, The Bobby Brown Story is sequel-ish to the point that the narrative doesn’t even deign to offer any info about Brown’s origins as the original enfant terrible of R&B, just literally cutting from a traumatic childhood death scene to teenage Brown returning home after contentiously leaving his boy band. (This is such a stark and strange way to begin a story that BET is basically just telling the audience, “Nuh-uh-uh, you gotta see The New Edition Story if you want the whole sordid tale!”)
The Bobby Brown Story is a typical musician biopic, showcasing the rise, fall, and redemption of a scoundrel. (Its structure will be familiar to any fan of Jake Kasdan’s classic music-industry satire Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.) Scanning from the 1980s through today, we see Brown (Woody McClain) morph from persona to persona: nasally teen heartthrob, bad-boy solo artist, wanton womanizer, paranoiac drug fiend, absentee father, doting father, grieving father. To counter the laughably apocryphal scenes of Brown boinking everyone from Janet Jackson (played by Cree Davis) to three women at once on his tour bus (“Hurry this shit up, man” says his brother, whom I fully agree with), he’s eventually saved by a Good Woman. Brown’s various relationships are underdeveloped, and the always-welcome Mekhi Phifer is wasted in a small role as his brother and former manager, Tommy.
Clumsily explained in the opening narration, the thesis of Bobby Brown — who has about the same reputation for gentility as Ike Turner — is that his life has been haunted by the specter of death. His dead grandmother, his dead childhood buddy, his dead brother-in-law, his dead parents, his dead ex-wife, his dead daughter. But the script doesn’t effectively connect the throughline from repetitious tragedy to psychological flaccidity. Did these deaths cause teenage Brown to father and ignore two children before he was 20? Did they lead to him to impregnating his fiancée and another woman at the same time years later? Were they behind his multiple arrests, including a domestic violence charge in 2003 for battering Whitney? According to the biopic, nothing’s ever really his fault: It’s his brother’s, for not protecting him; it’s Janet Jackson’s, for not loving him; it’s his oldest children’s mothers’, for seducing him.
McClain humanizes Brown, who, throughout the mini, frequently refers to the pain of colorism in an industry that values light skin. “‘America’s Little Princess. ‘Why is she with that thug? He’s too ghetto for her, he’s too ugly for her. He’s a leach,'” he laments during an argument with his wife. It’s true Brown has been vilified in the press as Hades enticing young Persephone into the Underworld, and you may appreciate seeing a different side of the story. You may very nearly buy it, too. I believe the real-life Brown loves his children, and that witnessing his former love and daughter die tragically and similarly within three years of one another has been heartbreaking for him. The mini doesn’t shy away from rendering Brown a lowercase-j jerk, but the moment that convinces me of its fragile masculinity is one during which he beats up Whitney’s drug dealer and accidentally hits her in the process. That’s the scene a screenwriter creates when he knows he has to address Whitney’s public admission that Brown assaulted her. That’s the scene an abuser authorizes to absolve himself of any violent behavior.
If you, like me, are a sucker for schlocky TV biopics because you’ll never get around to reading the celebrity memoir, this will be a veritable candy store. The best scenes — besides the intentionally hilarious recreations from Bobby and Whitney’s ill-fated 2005 reality show — are concert sequences reveling in Brown’s fervent bops and McClain’s enviable dancing skills. Here, you finally get a sense of Brown’s talent and allure, and what made him a sex symbol decades ago. And you have to at least grudgingly admire any film audacious enough to include a clip from “Crank Dat (Soulja Boy)” to show time has passed into the late 2000s. That’s my prerogative.
Cast: Woody McClain, Gabrielle Dennis, Mekhi Phifer, Alyssa Goss, Donshea Hopkins
Executive Producer: Jesse Collins
Premieres: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (BET)