Whitney Houston is one of the greatest recording artists who ever lived. Her golden vocals made her one of the most popular vocalists ever. Over the course of her career she sold 200 million albums. And her songs were technically demanding, flying all over her impressive range.
But all of that success, talent, and work is glossed over in the new biopic of the star that premieres Saturday, January 17, on Lifetime. Instead, the movie glosses over her legacy and her talent by focusing the 90-minute running time almost entirely on her relationship with R&B singer Bobby Brown.
To be clear, that could have made for a soapy, fun drama, even based on the real life story of Houston. It just would have to actually be about the woman in its title.
Whitney focuses on love over work
The opening scene of Whitney shows the singer (played here by America's Next Top Model vet Yaya DaCosta) entering the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards. She takes her seat, hugs a few friends, and meets a new face — Bobby Brown, a young R&B singer. When Brown takes the stage, Houston is mesmerized. He's sexy, he's talented, and he's a little bit of a bad boy. She's drawn to him, and she agrees to go on a date with him.
Immediately, the film makes clear that this is not a story with Whitney Houston at its heart; it's a film that romanticizes Bobby Brown. There is no mention of chart-topping albums or the Grammy nominations Houston had before she met Brown. In fact, the only sign that Whitney Houston was successful in any form before she met Brown is that briefly, in one scene at her birthday party, she and Brown walk by a case full of trophies and awards.
"People tired of seeing me getting prizes," Houston says when she first meets Brown. "I don't blame 'em. Sometimes I get tired of hearing about myself." It's a statement that the movie itself seems to believe. The plot of the story, because it picks up with Brown, assumes that the viewer already knows about Houston's success, already knows her best hits, already knows that she is a bigger, better, more memorable star than Bobby Brown could ever be. And then it treats her as a secondary character in a movie about her life.
Whitney Houston, in the movie, is only two things: a companion to Bobby Brown and a performer. None of Houston's three performances in the movie do the real star justice. DaCosta does a decent job with mastering Houston's mannerisms and spirit. But since the producers could not secure the rights to either Houston or Brown's vocals, they were forced to use imitators as backing vocals for the actors to lip-sync to. Thus, Whitney doesn't sound like Whitney. But the larger problem is that every single one of the artist's performances in the biopic is mired in Brown's reaction to it.
In her first, he falls for her. Her second — a performance built to look like an edited video of several nights of performances meshed together, not unlike what Beyoncé (a performer who has said Houston was an inspiration to her) did with her performances at Roseland — concludes with Bobby Brown joining her on stage. The third, is supposed to be a heart-wrenching rendition of "I Will Always Love You." It is sung to Bobby Brown, who stands off stage.
The problem, though, for anyone who knows anything about Houston is that she didn't always love Brown. The two got divorced in 2006.
The movie romanticizes a deeply messy relationship
That's the second problem with Whitney. Placing Houston's relationship with Brown at the center of the film could have worked, but the movie refuses to engage with the truth of that relationship. Houston's mother spoke out against the movie in November telling Entertainment Tonight that "Lifetime has chosen to go ahead with the movie about Whitney in spite of my family's objections. No one connected with this movie knew Whitney or anything about her relationship with Bobby." It's obvious, watching the movie, that she was 100 percent right.
Were this a movie that took a deep dive into the very messy relationship that Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown actually had, it would have been more interesting. Bobby Brown did meet Houston at the Soul Train Awards. Just as the movie shows, the pair did date, get engaged, survive a miscarriage, get married, and have a daughter together. But the film paints Houston as a passive, perfect figure, refusing to engage with the complicated realities of her marriage.
She is the victim to whom things happen, without agency or a voice in her relationship.
In the movie, Houston and Bobby have several conversations about what will happen once their baby is born- — in that they agree that neither of them will tour so that they can spend time together as a normal couple. That transitions, as Houston's fame grows, to both of them going on her tour, but when Brown decides that he isn't getting enough attention, he leaves. But Houston isn't shown as angry or frustrated or even disappointed. Instead she weeps. She cries about how lonely she will be. She positions herself under Bobby so he can hold her. In the movie, she is the victim to whom things happen, without agency or a voice in her relationship.
That's not,however, how the pair's real relationship was. "There was infidelity in the marriage, yes, on both parts," Bobby Brown told Access Hollywood's Shawn Robinson about their real relationship. "Both of us cheated on each other, period. So that's hard to swallow for both of us. I just think when two people that love each other as much as we loved each other, when they start drifting apart, different people come into the situation, into the scenario, and we make mistakes.
Brown and Houston were married for 15 years in a union that graced the cover of tabloids over and over and over again. "He was my drug," Houston told Oprah Winfrey in a widely publicized 2009 interview. "I didn’t do anything without him. I wasn’t getting high by myself. It was me and him together, and we were partners, and that’s what my high was — him. He and I being together, and whatever we did, we did it together. No matter what, we did it together."
Notably, the two did crack together Despite Houston's famous 2000 interview with Diane Sawyer where she dramatically declares that "We don’t do crack. We don’t do that. Crack is wack." That she lied was obvious by the mid-2000s, when she was in and out of rehab for addiction to the drug.
No one can know everything that happened in Houston and Brown's relationship, save Brown himself, but we do know that they fought, that they did drugs together, and that in 2003 police responded to a domestic-violence 911 call at their Georgia home and found Houston with a bruised cheek and a cut lip. Brown turned himself in and was charged with a misdemeanor for battery.
It certainly wasn't the beautiful love story, scarred only by a single time that Bobby Brown cheated, that the movie makes it out to be.
The film ends as it began, with Bobby.
Whitney ends with Whitney's performance of "I Will Always Love You," as the camera flashes to shots of Bobby Brown's face. The story spans just five years of Houston's life, which means it is conveniently cut to make the most of her relationship with Bobby.
"As a public, we know how it ultimately ends," director Angela Bassett told The Washington Post. "But we only follow a five-year period of [Whitney and Bobby's] life together, and that’s the sweet spot of their youth and their success."
How "it ultimately ends" would have really thrown a wrench into the love story Lifetime and Bassett wanted to tell. Whitney Houston was found dead in a hotel bathroom the night before the Grammys with cocaine in her bloodstream. Her marriage with Bobby Brown was over. She was 48.
That isn't the love story Lifetime wants. Instead, the movie trails off right as the couple's relationship is starting to get ugly.
Lifetime bills itself as television for women, but the channel frequently does disservice to actual, complicated women who lived and did great things and sometimes had huge failings. By reducing Houston's life to a romanticized love story, Whitney is just the latest film to play into this unintentional agenda.
After the movie ends on Saturday, the network will air Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney, an interview between Brown and Access Hollywood correspondent Shaun Robinson, making it all the more clear whose story this movie is really trying to tell. Hint: his name isn't in the title.