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The biggest decision facing any biographical film is how much of the subject’s life to include. Will childhood be broached, or will there be flashbacks? Will it sweep across time, lingering only on late tragedy?
Whitney, Lifetime’s biopic of the late, great chanteuse Whitney Houston does none of these things. Instead, Angela Bassett‘s directorial debut focuses on a few years at the very height of Houston’s career. But a more accurate title for the film would be “Whitney and Bobby,” since Yaya DaCosta, who played Houston, and Arlen Escarpeta (as Bobby Brown) share equal screen time, and it is their relationship that dominates the material.
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. It’s also bookended with performances of two of Houston’s songs — “The Greatest Love of All” and the iconic “I Will Always Love You” — that also express, however beautifully, the toxic attachment of the relationship.
This is general ground that Lifetime biographies have covered many times before, most recently in their Aaliyah biopic, which devoted much of its time to the controversial and disputed relationship between the late singer and R. Kelly. But one of the things that makes Whitney feel different is the strength and natural chemistry of its leads, DaCosta and Escapeta (everyone else, perhaps like in reality, is a background character). He is brooding, intense and exudes insecurity through a facade of confidence. She is beautiful, vivacious, giggling, and nearly sparkling in the movie’s first half. Together, there is a palpable allure. And Bassett, using sound instincts, also films them in several extremely intimate, lavishly sensual scenes.
Bassett’s direction also keeps the camera moving, swirling and active, except when it alights and lingers on DaCosta’s face. (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”). Bassett also makes the right choice to allow songs to play out fully, including an early number where Escarpeta as Brown performs “Every Little Step.” But quick editing jumps and the occasional tour wardrobe montage also mange to keep the pace from languishing.
Houston’s songs in the movie have been recorded by Grammy-nominated Deborah Cox, and while her interpretations of Houston’s work 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.
More than anything, Whitney is a film about foreshadowing, both within the film and for Houston’s future, making clear a litany of the singer’s tragic missteps. The most obvious of these is the juxtaposition of Houston’s adoration of the 1976 film Sparkle against her real life. In that film, a group of sisters leave their church choir to form a music act and are soon caught up with men who bring drugs and abuse into their lives. Their mother cautions one of her daughters against taking up with a man she considers to be the wrong choice, and in Whitney, Houston’s mother Cissy (Suzzanne Douglas) gives Houston a similar warning, which she too ignores.
While there are hints of increasing drug abuse, and a darkness that is beginning to engulf Houston and Brown’s relationship, Whitney ends before any of it truly unravels. In some ways, 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 signs are there, but they are left to viewers to interpret. “I’m at the top of my game, look around you!” Houston says to Brown late into the film’s second, far more melodramatic hour. DaCosta’s smile is contagious, though, and Whitney ending things at the top stops time, for a just a moment, where things really do seem almost ok.
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