The late Whitney Houston, who died in 2012 at age 48, was one of the greatest singers of all time, so her biopic had a lot to prove.
Making an earnest attempt to live up to that challenge, the Lifetime network, saddled as it is by a history of hilariously atrocious treatments of celebrity lives (like Liz and Dick) seems to have made a solid choice in putting Houston’s Waiting to Exhale co-star Angela Bassett at the helm.
In her directorial debut, Bassett–no stranger to tumultuous singers’ lives, having earned an Oscar nomination as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It–does a commendable job squishing Houston’s lifetime of bad choices, career highs and personal lows into just two hours. The result is a patchwork quilt of a crazy, colorful life–and in some ways, it works.
The costume designer, Mona May, was on-point with the lace-and-leather ensembles, sequined gowns, and retro looks that captured the era (find out more about May’s work here). Deborah Cox is one of the few singers in the world who can even approximate Ms. Houston’s melismatic style and did a suitably incredible job with the vocals. And actress and America’s Next Top Model alumna Yaya DaCosta did a mean Whitney head shake, too.
But when Houston’s family comes out warning fans to “brace themselves for the worst,” it’s also probably a good idea to buckle up. As they say in the film: Time to be Whitney Houston!
The biopic focuses less on Whitney’s life and more about her love affair with Bobby “My Prerogative” Brown (as played by Arlen Escarpeta). It might have more aptly been named “Whitney and Bobby.”
Naturally, their story begins when Whitney falls madly in love with Bobby at the Soul Train awards in 1989, despite the fact that he yelled at her for kicking his chair. All is forgiven when he performs in white satin and white Reeboks and flashes his six-pack abs in her general direction. Backstage, they set a date and Bobby promises to pick her up the Hilton, which is probably the same Hilton where she passed away later. In televised biopics, foreshadowing is your friend.
When Whitney sings “The Greatest Love of All,” Bobby is smitten, too. Their first date is on Rodeo Drive, where they are swarmed by fans. Soon enough, as one might guess, they are torn asunder by the demands of stardom.
Then, a shirtless Bobby gets a heck of a mail delivery: A check for over $24,000,000 and an invitation to Whitney’s 25th birthday party. (Note to self: find mail key.) He puts a shirt on for the occasion. At the party, Whitney offers Bobby some cocaine, but he tsks tsks tsks and says he doesn’t do such things because he’s “seen too many bad outcomes.” (Did you feel that foreshadowing there?)
Whitney takes him to her studio and he continues to play the straight man to her party girl, but it’s their shared love of Sparkle that really brings them together. So when Whitney sings “How Will I Know?” the answer is: he loves Sparkle, too! Then Bobby tells her, “I used to think that you were some kind of goddess, but you’re way more than that: you’re real,” and you can practically see her heart go pitter-pat over that malarkey, because girls are silly like that.
At Clive Davis’s office, the orange spectacle wearing music impresario tells her not to date Eddie Murphy or wear yellow (wisdom to live by), and hooks her up with his new-hire LA Reid, who is already working with Bobby Brown. On another date, Bobby tells her that he has two kids and “takes care of his responsibilities.” Even though his children live in Boston with their moms, he does “right by them.” After that heartfelt speech, they consummate their relationship in a hail of gold chains, elastic-waisted pants and a reggae soundtrack.
Cut to another ballroom where Whitney is getting an award and a really poorly cast Eddie Murphy stand-in is presenting her with said award in a lascivious manner via a remote video link from the set of Another 48 Hours, and Bobby is not having it. He gives Whitney a hard time in the limo ride home, but she is able to tease him out of his bad mood. (Yes, that is foreshadowing you hear.) They make up in the bedroom, but their detente is temporary. Bobby wants to take things to the next level, but when she wants to slow things down. He balks, because he “loves her too much” and takes off. She does a few lines of cocaine, because it’s easier than feelings.
Whitney heads to the studio with a new hairstyle and a new tune, “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” but it’s the same old song: She grills everyone for details about Bobby Brown. The producer launches into a study of Bobby’s personality that would make an FBI profiler proud. Back at home, Whitney watches a movie alone in bed and eats some sad soup and thinks about her feelings. Then she calls Bobby. He’s in Boston with his baby and his Baby Mama, but when Whitney calls, he jumps. His Baby Mama gives him some real-talk about how it’s never going to work. Cut to the bedroom where it is working—and anyone watching with their parents just got very uncomfortable.
Bobby is soon announcing, “I make love and I make eggs.” His eggs are served with a side of bologna, though. When Whitney asks him where he was last night, he admits he was with another woman, but he swears he loves her most of all and she fell for it. Girls in biopics are silly like that. When he proposes, she says yes.
Whitney brings her friends and estranged parents together to tell everyone the good news. When she says, “I’m getting married!” Her mother replies, “It better not be to Bobby Brown.” But, of course, it is. Luckily, he’s not there to hear what his future in-laws think of him, because why would he be there for his own engagement party?
After facing off against her parents, she comes home to find Bobby moping in the foyer. He ruins her good mood with two little words: “She pregnant.” The news make Whitney run straight to her cocaine stash. She does a line while Bobby begs for another chance and promises that he loves her and isn’t going back to his Baby Mama. Whitney hugs him. Blame the cocaine.
Later, Whitney is on set at The Bodyguard talking to Bobby about her pregnancy. In traditional soap operatic style, as soon as she gets off the phone, she feels a sharp pain and then has a miscarriage. Her mother rushes to her side and tells her God has plans. She fixes her a cup of chamomile and tells her that it’s a sign to rethink marrying Bobby (no mention of rethinking cocaine use, though). Whitney tells her to get out, because if she can’t accept her man she can’t accept her. As her mother leaves, Bobby rushes in. They hug and cry and he convinces her to do the movie, despite her miscarriage. He promises to cancel his tour and stay with her, because he’s made his label enough money. This will probably not end well.
Soon after, they are married. At the altar, Whitney and Bobby have a little sidebar and she puts Bobby’s hand on her stomach to tell him that she is pregnant again. Fast forward nine months and they are welcoming their daughter Bobbi Kristina. She tells Bobby and Bobbi that she just wants to stay home and be a wife and mother. Enter Clive Davis with a copy of Billboard to report that “I Will Always Love You” has been on the top of the charts for weeks and he wants to talk touring. Whitney tells him she’s not touring. So Clive calls Bobby to help him convince Whitney to tour because The Bodyguard is such a big hit. (It’s also the reason the at-home audience is being treated to so many Kevin Costner commercials.)
Even though he already has a record label, for some reason Bobby thought Clive wanted to sign him. When it turns out the meeting is all about Whitney, Bobby heads straight to a bar and orders a vodka with a side of bitterness and a dollop of regret.
He comes home to find Whitney singing “Jesus Loves Me” to their child and Bobby watches, his dreams of a new record shattered, and tells her she should go back on the road. So they go. They stash the baby somewhere for the touring montage. It’s a rush of room changes, costume changes, new hairstyles, Bobby feeling back-burnered, and Whitney doing cocaine to get through it all while “I’m Every Woman” plays.
After the show, Whitney and Bobby hit a club and while Whitney hits the dance floor, Bobby sits on the sideline and pouts. He’s angry that he’s not as popular as his wife and that he has to turn down groupies who then subject him to groupie trash talk (“Who are you now? Mr Houston?” Zing!). They both drink heavily and then smoke pot in the hotel room even though everyone who watches Lifetime knows it’s a gateway drug and soon Bobby will be doing crack in the bathroom. Bobby tells her that he needs to go home and get some work done. He leaves and everyone is miserable.
In his home studio, Bobby is smoking a joint and trying to write a song when he gets a call from a friend who talks him into meeting him at the club. They drink and Bobby yells at some people and does some cocaine to help cure his “writer’s block.” It’s all downhill from there.
Whitney goes to surprise Bobby in LA and it doesn’t end well. She walks in on him inflagrante delicto–which is not the woman’s name, but could be. Whitney walks backwards out of the room in horror. After witnessing that atrocity, she has no choice but to take to her bed. When Bobby comes to find her, he blames her for being Whitney Houston and for making him feel bad about not being Whitney Houston. She does a line of coke and goes to hide in the bathroom while he bangs on the door.
Fast forward: Some bad stuff happens to Bobby so he checks himself into rehab and while he’s there he makes a “secret rehab confession” (which could be a Lifetime biopic sub-genre of its own) about Whitney’s drug use and it ends up in the tabloids. When he gets sprung, Whitney is irate. She points out that she may do drugs, but she’s not the one getting shot at or going to rehab or getting high and hooking up with other women. She smokes a joint and tells him to get out.
Then she changes her mind.
Later, Bobby tells Whitney that she’s due to perform in 10 minutes. She appears on stage for a final performance of “I Will Always Love You” and Bobby watches from the wings and cries. The screen goes to white and a footnote appears that says that Bobby and Whitney divorced in 2006.
Perhaps instead of watching the biopic, the two hours would have been better spent watching this performance over and over again, instead.