Lifetime’s ambitious new made-for-TV movie Whitney gets a lot of things right.
For starters, Yaya DaCosta (Lee Daniels' The Butler) is spellbinding and compelling as a young Whitney Houston who enjoyed the riches and respect that came with her unparalleled fame but also struggled with the cultural and personal isolation that level of success can bring.
Arlen Escarpeta (Final Destination 5) is equally convincing as an even younger Bobby Brown. And when the small-screen flick premieres Saturday January 17, viewers will get a glimpse of the first time the two met at the 1989 Soul Train Awards. She was a nearly 26-year-old international pop star and he was 20 and just as rapidly securing his place as the bad boy of R&B. But the two had undeniable chemistry almost immediately and a firework-filled flirtation between DaCosta’s Houston and Escarpeta’s Brown is undeniably endearing.
Oscar-nominated actress and first-time director Angela Bassett smartly captures that romantic connection while also emphasizing the pair’s vastly different careers with a juxtaposition of their performance and musical styles.
First, Brown is shown singing "Every Little Step" (with vocals provided by Carlos Battey of Jackie Boyz) and gyrating and flashing his muscular stomach as much as humanely possible. Not long after, Houston takes to the stage and belts out a practically angelic rendition of "The Greatest Love of All."
While it is a little unnerving to see and hear Bobby Brown perform first in a movie called Whitney — can’t wait to read the negative tweets about that — the chronology fits the story. After all, it’s his performance that captures Houston’s rapt attention and compels her to talk to him, which then opens the door for him to ask her out on their first date.
It is during this courtship phase that we see Houston is actually rather introverted but the cocaine that she sniffs and her older brother helps supply, transforms her into her shoulder-shimmying alter ego in front of the cameras and on stage. We also see that her best friend and assistant Robyn Crawford (the always likeable Yolonda Ross from Treme) is her only friend and one of the few people she trusts. A possible romantic connection is implied but left to the viewer to determine.
During those early months of the couple’s relationship, Brown is also portrayed as a hopeless cocaine-free romantic, who is too young to drink legally but already has two children by two different women.
In other words, these were two severely flawed but very well-intentioned people who wanted to legitimately love and be loved but didn’t always know how to go about doing that in a healthy and mature way. Whitney wonderfully brings that tension to the forefront and even positions Brown as a sympathetic figure in the process.
As for the music, Deborah Cox is nothing short of perfect as the voice behind Whitney. Where DaCosta nails the Grammy winner with every wig, breathy sigh and toothy smile, the Canadian songstress providing the vocals impressively hits many of the crystal-clear notes that made Whitney the most amazing singer of her generation.
Fans can look forward to hearing Cox’s beautiful vocals on some of the icon’s most memorable hits including the aforementioned "Greatest Love of All" as well as "I’m Your Baby Tonight" and "I’m Every Woman." What a breath of fresh air it is to actually hear and sing along with actual songs Houston sang, which is a luxury failed biopics such as Lifetime’s Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B and Jimi: All Is By My Side didn’t have without the music rights.
Securing the rights proves especially beneficial when DaCosta’s face and physical articulation are paired with Cox’s voice on "I Will Always Love You," a scene that will have you reaching for the tissues. Cathartic and tragic, the scene reminds us why Whitney’s death, nearly three years ago at the age of 48, was such a waste and a loss. Like no other song she sang, the legend’s take on the Dolly Parton classic is a declaration with layers of meaning.
On one hand, the song sums up her tumultuous 15-year marriage to Brown and on the other hand, the song encapsulates her rollercoaster relationship with the music industry and the public. Although Bassett and screenwriter Shem Bitterman (Betty & Coretta) set up Brown and Houston’s fateful first meeting at the Soul Train Awards, the two fail to include the fact that Houston was booed at that very same award show.
In reality, Brown sang "My Prerogative" not "Every Little Step" and Houston sang "Hold Up the Light" with BeBe and CeCe Winans not "The Greatest Love of All" on that night nearly 26 years ago. That’s neither here nor there.
But in order to paint Houston in a more compassionate light, it would’ve made sense to see her bristle at the boos some of the audience members dished out. It happened not when she performed but when her name was mentioned as a nominee in the Best R&B Urban Contemporary Female category.
Houston lost the award to Anita Baker but, from what people have said, it really hurt her to not be fully embraced by her own people simply because she had found success as a crossover artist. So why not create a scene where an understanding Brown lends his shoulder and tells her she is soulful enough or that she is a legend who didn’t have to prove anything. It’s all dramatized anyway, right?
Because if there’s one flaw to Whitney, it’s that there isn’t enough Whitney Houston. Despite not having her family’s blessing, Bassett and Lifetime created a tasteful, touching and entertaining take on the singer’s life from 1989 to 1995 – but through the lens of her relationship with Brown.
Yes, Houston’s very public battles with drug abuse as well as her toxic marriage came to define her life in later years but she was more than that. It’s also clear that this is a Lifetime movie and the network has a knack for showing women through the spectrum of their relationships — often as the victim — with men.
That said, either change the name of the movie to Whitney and Bobby or give viewers more than a few hits, wigs and giggles. Give us more Whitney Houston. That’s all anyone wants when they watch a story that supposed to be about her life.
Thankfully, there’s more to love than loathe about Whitney. In addition to strong performances from DaCosta and Escarpeta, expect noteworthy turns from Suzzanne Douglas as Cissy Houston and Mark Rolston (The Shawshank Redemption) as Clive Davis.
Whitney premieres Saturday Jan. 17 at 8 p.m. on Lifetime.