Lifetime's 'Whitney': What the Critics Are Saying
Angela Bassett makes her directorial debut in the biopic starring Yaya DeCosta as the iconic singer, with Deborah Cox's interpretation of her hits.
Lifetime's Whitney Houston biopic airs Saturday night, with Yaya DeCosta portraying the iconic songstress and Arlen Escapeta playing her husband, R&B star Bobby Brown.
The controversial telepic — made without the participation of the late singer's family or the use of her original recordings — also marks Angela Bassett's directorial debut. Rather than tackle the entirety of Houston's life, the project zooms in on her career highs and marriage, and makes no mention of her death in either the movie or postscript. Houston's songs were recorded by Grammy-nominated performer and friend, Deborah Cox, and the film is scored by RedOne.
See what top critics are saying about Whitney:
The Hollywood Reporter's Allison Keene praises DeCosta's portrayal — "The makeup and wardrobe department did an exceptional job recreating Houston's looks on DaCosta, who nails her mannerisms, particularly when it comes to a performance of "I Will Always Love You" — and her chemistry with Escapeta. "The movie does not shy away from emotional portrayals of the couple's drug abuse, codependency and personal tragedy, nor does it let either one off the hook when it comes to mistakes and bad decisions. ... Together, there is a palpable allure. And Bassett, using sound instincts, also films them in several extremely intimate, lavishly sensual scenes." Additionally, Bassett's direction "also keeps the camera moving, swirling and active, except when it alights and lingers on DaCosta's face. Bassett also makes the right choice to allow songs to play out fully, ... but quick editing jumps and the occasional tour wardrobe montage also mange to keep the pace from languishing."
Keene also notes that while Cox's covers "are sometimes gorgeously close to the mark, they don't (and can't) quite fully capture Houston's naturally showstopping cadence. Still, there are moments when Cox's singing and DaCosta's mannerisms add up to an eerily accurate portrayal of Houston, and in certain scenes, viewers may feel as swept up as the enraptured fans onscreen." Of its ending, "its finale feels abrupt, but the decision to focus just on Houston's most meteorically successful years — where, for a little while, she probably was happy — makes Whitney a fairly flattering portrait that is only lightly a cautionary tale."
The New York Times' Jon Caramanica says, "For two hours, this film cherry-picks moments of Houston’s life — some recognizable, some not — and stitches them together into a perplexing, not altogether comforting quilt. ... It feels as if it were conceived and executed from afar. What’s more, this is a biopic that’s skeptical of its subject, that at times appears to be working actively against her interests," as Houston is not often the hero of scenes. The hourlong interview, Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney, with Brown and journalist Shaun Robinson that will air after Whitney "is far more riveting than the film that occasions its existence." Still, "DaCosta fluently mimics Houston’s gestural tics, the quick neck-snaps and chin-juts that she brought to her performances. And Houston’s vocals are delivered gloriously by Cox."
Los Angeles Times' Robert Lloyd notes, "Though it works in parts and pieces — were you to be shown any random scene out of context, you might imagine a better picture — it doesn't add up to much. ... It's a better-than-average Lifetime film — and at its boudoir heart, it is very much a Lifetime film." As the title character, "DaCosta is remarkably convincing lip-syncing to Cox's re-recordings of Houston's hits. But though DaCosta and Escarpeta each creates a sympathetic character — at times, the picture feels meant to make you forget you ever saw Being Bobby Brown — they lack chemistry. For all the script insists otherwise, their love, and thus the film about it, feels something less than necessary."
Newsday's Verne Gay explains, "It's full of warmth and passion and an unspoken sense that, three years after Houston's death, what most fans probably want to remember, or do remember, is the Houston life force. That style, and grace, and elegance, and beauty ... and especially that joy. ... What Bassett has done is to write a love letter to Houston and Brown. Escarpeta's Brown subverts the prevailing public image of him in every scene — here, he's a gentle soul with a good heart, who wants to do right by his children and Whitney. ... Bassett refuses to cast blame for the troubles, and we're left with a portrait that has plenty of love — just not a whole lot of insight or edge."
The Boston Globe's Sarah Rodman states, "One day a great film might be made about Houston’s life, but Whitney is not it. While neither overly salacious or reverent, Whitney — which focuses almost exclusively on her relationship with Brown — lacks dynamism in telling the tale of a very dynamic life, and falls short of illuminating anything about Houston that both diehard fans and casual observers of pop culture didn’t already know. ... Cox is a gifted vocalist in her own right, and DaCosta is an apt mime. But that’s also exactly what Whitney feels like: faking it. And for a film about an artist revered for her voice, that approach is woefully low-rent."