Whitney Houston’s life was a made-for-Hollywood-story from the beginning of her meteoric rise to the top of the music business, through her tumultuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown, to her spiraling downfall and ultimate death, alone in a bathtub, on the fourth floor of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 2012. At a certain point, her fate was obvious to everyone but, perhaps, Whitney herself.
That should have given us pause when we learned that Lifetime would adapt Houston’s story as a TV film – after all, if there’s a cheap way of trivializing a Hollywood life, Lifetime will find it, as it did most recently with the execrable “The Brittany Murphy Story.”
“Whitney,” premiering 7 p.m. Saturday, is an exceptional film for Lifetime, though: It’s not bad, thanks largely to a stellar performances by YaYa DaCosta and modestly successful direction by actress Angela Bassett, making her directorial debut. DaCosta and other cast members, including Arlen Escarpata as Brown and Mark Rolston as music mogul Clive Davis, almost manage to overcome a cliche-ridden script by Shem Bitterman that proves, if nothing else, that he’s seen either George Cukor’s “What Price Hollywood” or various versions of its spawn, “A Star Is Born.”
The first third of the film is especially good as it establishes Houston as a young woman of enormous talent and the determination not only to be successful but to enjoy her life in the process. She meets Brown at the 1989 Soul Train Awards and the attraction is instantaneous. Although Brown would be widely blamed for her personal and professional descent, the Lifetime film casts him in a different light, at least until a moment when a hotel employee ignores him and focuses on “Miss Houston,” prompting Brown to snap, “You can talk to me, and it’s Mrs. Brown.”
At one point after the birth of his and Houston’s only child, Bobbi Kristina, Brown gets a call from Clive Davis asking to meet with him. Brown naively thinks he’s about to get his own contract, but, instead, Davis wants him to use his influence to get Houston on the road to promote the soundtrack to her first film role, “The Bodyguard,” with its hit cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
We all know the rest of the story, but that won’t do a thing to diminish the ratings for Lifetime’s film, which focuses on the early and middle periods of Houston’s career.
Bitterman borrows another bit of business for the film’s finale. Heretofore, we’ve heard many Houston hits (thrillingly sung by Deborah Cox as DaCosta lip syncs) but not the big one. At last, Houston is alone on stage, in stunning white, all but inhaling the spotlight as she sings “I Will Always Love You.” It’s a moment of triumph and sadness, just like it is when Barbra Streisand sings “My Man” at the end of William Wyler’s “Funny Girl” (although that was done in a single take).
Bassett’s direction is more than competent. She clearly has the instincts to tell a good story and elicits superb performances to do so. Her pacing is off, and some of the scene changes too abrupt, but Bassett knows what she’s doing when it comes to actors, which becomes paramount when working with an uninspired script. Her cast not only overcomes the weakness of the writing, but also the low-budget limitations of doing a movie for Lifetime.
DaCosta is better than good – she’s terrific. She immediately convinces you that you’re hearing and seeing Whitney Houston. Escarpata is also solid as Bobby Brown, even if this Bobby Brown doesn’t quite fit the image we might have of him.
Press reports have Houston family members objecting to the film for various reasons, some of which may be valid. But they should be grateful that the film isn’t long enough to include the last decade or so of her life, which was one sad reminder of her former glory after another. No doubt they will also take issue with the relatively forgiving portrayal of Brown, at least in the early part of the film. Was Brown an enabler, or was Houston’s destiny writ long before she met him? The film offers no definitive answer.
No matter what specific details “Whitney” sidesteps, it’s hard to argue with the biggest take-away, a confirmation of what we already know: Whitney Houston was a singular star whose early loss remains deeply tragic.
What: 7 p.m. Saturday