Sunday, January 18, 2015

Whitney (Sanitsky Company, Silver Screen Pictures, Lifetime, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Whitney, a much-hyped biopic of Whitney Houston … well, not the whole life of Whitney Houston, which would have been considerably more interesting. A story that told her transition from good little church-singing daughter of soul courtier Cissy Houston, a classic “40 Feet from Stardom” singer whose group, the Sweet Inspirations, sang backup for Aretha Franklin and later, after he offered them way more money, for Elvis Presley, to pop-soul diva to spoiled star to her mysterious death on February 11, 2012 on the eve of the Grammy Awards (where she was supposed to be featured in a big tribute as part of her comeback attempt) would have been considerably more interesting than the film we got from writer Shem Bitterman and director Angela Bassett — yes, the same person who made a splash playing another troubled soul diva, Tina Turner, in What’s Love Got to Do with It (a much better movie than this one!). They decided to focus their film entirely on the relationship between Houston (Yaya DaCosta) and her husband, soul/R&B singer Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta), picking up Houston’s story as she’s sweeping the Soul Train awards and she meets Brown because the two of them are both performing at the event. The film was apparently produced with Brown’s full cooperation and definitely was opposed by Houston’s family — mom Cissy bitched to Entertainment Tonight that no one involved in the making of the film had actually known Whitney Houston and the daughter she had with Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was upset that she was not picked to play her mom in it. Angela Bassett said that was because “she’s not an actress. I know she’s acted here and there. I know she’s been on their family’s reality show, but she’s not an actress and acting is a craft.” (That seems an odd criticism considering how wretchedly Whitney Houston herself acted in the film The Bodyguard; her stunning cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” made both the film itself and its soundtrack album mega-hits, but her performance was so bad Charles rather nastily cracked that she wasn’t even able to play herself — though in her defense, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan created such a wildly inconsistent character that even someone with far more acting experience — like Barbra Streisand, for whom Kasdan originally wrote it — would have been thrown.) What makes me suspect that Bobby Brown was Bitterman’s and Bassett’s principal source of information is not only that Lifetime immediately followed up the film with an hour-long interview with him reminiscing about their relationship and dredging up its more sordid, tabloid-friendly aspects (the drinking, the drugs, the infidelities) but the script seemed designed deliberately to counter the standard “legend” of Houston’s career.

The “legend” is that she was a talented and professionally responsible, straight-edge singer until she met Brown, who got her hooked on drugs and a party-hearty lifestyle and basically dragged her down with him, and though she ultimately divorced him in 2007 (five years before she died) it was too late. The version presented in this film not only shows her using cocaine before he ever did but him trying to talk her out of it, and her status as a drug-user becoming public when he went into rehab and someone in his group violated the anonymity principle big-time and sold his revelations to a tabloid. There are some parts of this movie that ring true — like when Cissy Houston (Suzzanne Douglas) lectures Whitney when she’s about to marry Brown and makes it clear she’s against it because the Houstons were from the Black middle class and the Browns were from the ghetto, and “you can take the man out of the projects but you can’t take the projects out of the man” — but for the most part it’s a pretty standard-issue movie biography, leaning heavily for inspiration on The Jolson Story, Funny Girl and quite a few other movies I can’t think of at the moment simply because their clichés have become so much a part of the culture that it’s hard to trace them back to their origins. Indeed, the ending is a stone ripoff of Funny Girl (appropriate enough given that Houston’s big breakthrough film was originally planned as a Streisand vehicle): Whitney Houston has finally broken up with the man with whom she’s had a troubled and acutely dysfunctional relationship when she has to go out and deliver a performance of “I Will Always Love You,” and the song becomes a summing-up of her heartbreak the way “The Music That Makes Me Dance” did in the stage version of Funny Girl and “My Man” did in the film. I remember Whitney Houston as someone whose first flush of popularity coincided with my coming-out as a Gay man, and every time one of her records was played in a Gay bar I felt a sense of relief that the loud, obnoxious pounding “dance music” that dominated such places (and mostly still does!) would part for at least a few minutes and I’d get to hear a glorious pop-soul voice caressing songs with actual melodies. Whitney Houston was one of the most perfect voices ever to record (on a par with Karen Carpenter’s — another tragic, ill-fated figure — for sheer beauty and purity), and whatever I thought of her music (she was the sort of singer who was great when they gave her the right song; alas, especially after the first two albums, that didn’t happen all that often), I always loved the sheer sonority of the voice itself.

Oddly, the vocals on this movie sound only superficially like the real one; I’m not sure who did the singing since the page on this film does not yet have a “Soundtracks” section, and I had assumed it was Yaya DaCosta herself but one message board contributor said she had a voice double named Deborah Cox, but whoever was singing didn’t have the sheer purity of Houston’s own voice but made up for it by singing far more soulfully, indulging in a lot more melismas, “worrying” and the other devices of soul music (and the Black gospel from which it derived), to the point where the vocals on this movie turned out to be interesting in themselves as reworkings of Houston’s style with less sheer beauty but more emotion and passion. Unfortunately, when the Houston character wasn’t singing this film was so overwrought as to be virtually unwatchable — DaCosta and Escarpeta did such convincing beaver imitations on the scenery it’s hard to imagine anything was left of it when the film wrapped, and Bassett seemed intent on going out of her way to disprove my theory that actor-directors (from Stroheim and Welles — even though as actors they were unmitigated hams — to Allen, Redford, Costner and Eastwood) generally get marvelously quiet, understated performances from their casts. Even the soft-core porn scenes — of which there were several, featuring sex-machine Brown not only with Houston but the two other women with whom he had kids (one of whom he dated and knocked up a second time while he and Houston had already begun their relationship), as well as the party-girl he gets introduced to by one of his “projects” friends and takes up to Houston’s palatial home, only to have Houston unexpectedly come home early and catch them in flagrante delicto (not that old cliché again — that one’s so hoary there’s probably a painting of it at Lascaux!) — aren’t especially exciting or interesting. Whitney Houston’s story, though one with all too many of the makings of cliché (enormously talented star wastes it and ends up ruined and dead way too early), could have made an excellent (or at least a very good) film; instead this one is just a mess, and between this and the savage reviews Lifetime got for their biopic of Aaliyah (which I haven’t seen, though I undoubtedly have it in the backlog somewhere), maybe they just ought to lay off and not do any more movies based on classic and prematurely deceased Black divas, even if they think this is the best sort of programming they can offer for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend!