After Lifetime’s disastrous attempt at telling the story of the late R&B singer Aaliyah with the biopic, “Aaliyah: The Princess of R&B,” its no wonder that fans of late Whitney Houston shuddered with fear at the idea of the network depicting her life in a made-for-TV movie.
Fortunately for Whitney fans, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett makes her directorial debut with “Whitney” and helms a movie that reverently and successfully tells the romantic journey of one of music’s greatest superstars and the love of her life, R&B bad boy Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).
Yaya DeCosta, who stars as Whitney, is effective in her portrayal of the most-awarded female artist of all time. Though capturing many of Whitney’s signature nuances, DeCosta is careful to embody the six-Grammy winner in a manner that does not feel like she’s mimicking her.
DeCosta’s chemistry with co-star Escarpeta is magical, invoking the electric connection Whitney and Bobby possessed. While Escarpeta is missing Bobby’s gap-toothed smile, his performance as the breakout New Edition member is standout and he pops in every scene.
Equally impressive is Mark Rolston, whose depiction of music czar Clive Davis is so spot-on that at times you wonder if the Arista and J Records honcho is playing himself in the movie.
Yolonda Ross is perfectly cast as Whitney’s childhood friend and manager Robyn Crawford. Under the direction of Bassett, DeCosta and Ross are able to encapsulate the special bond Whitney and Robyn had that created tabloid chatter that the pair was secretly lesbians. The delicate manner in which the relationship is handled speaks to the brilliance of Bassett’s finesse of the script.
Cornelius Smith Jr. is Whitney’s drug-dealing brother, Michael Houston. Brief, yet tacit, “Whitney” shows that ‘The Greatest Love of All’ singer often scored cocaine from her older brother, putting to rest the manipulated media spin from Whitney’s record company during that time that her drug habit was introduced by Bobby.
There are also strong performances offered by Suzzanne Douglas as the cold, outspoken Cissy Houston; Wesley Jonathan as the music producer Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds; and James A. Watson Jr. as a sure-lookalike for family patriarch, John Houston.
R&B and Dance diva Deborah Cox sings all the songs in “Whitney” and impeccably delivers classics like ‘I’m Your Baby Tonight,’ ‘I’m Every Woman’ and ‘And I’ll Always Love You.’ Often compared to Whitney and both protégés of Davis, Cox and “The Bodyguard” star recorded a duet in 2000 called ‘Same Script, Different Cast’ for “Whitney: The Greatest Hits.”
The downside of “Whitney” is the execution of the live performance scenes. Obviously challenged with budgetary restraints, some of Whitney and Bobby’s concert performances feel more like a high school talent show performance and less like the award shows and concert tours they were adapted from.
Overall, “Whitney” is an honest film that does not shy away from the Newark, New Jersey-bred vocalist’s drug use; her tumultuous relationship with Bobby; and her desires to live life on her own terms. Full of steamy sex scenes—including Bobby’s random romp with a groupie—this TV movie is compelling, compassionate and carefully done.
“Whitney” premieres of Lifetime on Saturday, January 17 at 8pm ET.
VIDEO: Watch the official trailer for “Whitney” below.