Based on Lifetime’s recent track record with biopics, “Whitney” didn’t inspire much confidence, especially with “Directed by Angela Bassett” seemingly being all the network could muster to promote it. But what emerges is surprisingly compelling, if decidedly constricted take on the singer’s life, focusing squarely on her relationship with Bobby Brown, and ending well before her untimely death at age 48. Mostly, the whole exercise benefits from the radiance of Yaya DaCosta (seen in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) in the title role, who brings a star quality to the thin material worthy of the artist she portrays.
“Time to be Whitney Houston,” the pop diva, then 26, says as she exits a limo to attend an awards show as the movie begins, where she quickly meets — and falls into a relationship with — Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta). Before you know it, they’re engaging in sexual acts that tiptoe up to the boundaries of basic cable, and he’s talking about a longterm commitment.
Her family, however, responds to the news of their engagement with a decided chill, put off in part by the children Brown has already fathered with other women. And the duo’s love for each other is further tested by her overwhelming stardom, to the point where a former fling dismissively refers to Brown as “Mr. Houston,” and Houston’s record mogul Clive Davis (an unrecognizable Mark Rolston) invites Bobby in to talk — not to sign him to the label, as Bobby hopes, but rather to help prod his wife to getting back to work, and cashing in on her post-“Bodyguard” mega-stardom.
Working from a script by Shem Bitterman, Bassett manages to make both of her leads relatively sympathetic, and to keep the story moving even when not a lot is happening. DaCosta, meanwhile, captures Houston’s vulnerability while still being able to rock an assortment of fabulous outfits in a musical montage sequence, with Deborah Cox providing the vocals in a manner that unerringly captures the singer’s trademark belt.
Ultimately, “Whitney” only tells half the story — offering glimpses of Houston’s drug use and Brown’s bad behavior, but stopping short of her tragic end in 2012. There’s also a touch of shorthand in the depiction of Brown, what with the story’s “A Star Is Born”-like aspects as her career soars while his operates on a more mortal plane.
Still, after the once-over-lightly treatment given in 2014 to other performers who died too soon — Aaliyah and Brittany Murphy — as well as “The Unauthorized Saved by the Bell Story,” Lifetime’s fact-based movies hadn’t set the bar all that high in terms of expectations. And for those who will always love Houston, “Whitney” provides a reminder why, while shedding a narrow spotlight on a couple who spent most of their lives under the distorting glare of a big blinding one.