‘Whitney’ Was Not a Train Wreck

Posted January 19, 2015 by J Matthew Cobb in HiDef

Even the greatest Whitney Houston fan will tell you that Lifetime’s Whitney was not a disaster of a film

On the eve of the premiere of Lifetime’s Whitney  — the first ever bio pic focused on the life of the late Whitney Houston and the first film directed by Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett, sister-in-law Pat Houston released a press statement on her own website warning Houston lovers of the disaster that was coming their way. She didn’t give the film her blessing, producing cold remarks like “brace yourself for the worst.” She went on. “Never would Whitney allow her story to be told by an inexperienced team and how naive of anyone to think otherwise, unless you’re caught up in illusions of grandeur that you can just do anything and people will accept it. This made for TV movie is certainly not a trailer to Whitney’s life story.”

And none of that stopped Whitney fans from watching the film. Nor did it stop most critics from actually writing positive things about it. Yeah, you heard right. Most critics actually found enough good in the film to give it a thumb up, such as The Daily Beast, EssenceLos Angeles Times and Fast Company (“You’re about to read a sentence you never thought you would: Lifetime has made a good biopic movie”).

It wasn’t the train wreck we all were expecting, especially considering the Wendy Williams-directed Aaliyah bio pic that created a maelstrom on Twitter and social media. My first words ten minutes into Whitney were “so far better than that Aaliyah crap.” Anyone who recalled that unforgivable fiasco were treated with a healing salve of cinema from Whitney.

But let’s set the record straight. Whitney was not a home run for TV film. We’ve seen better. Bassett’s directing needs sharpening. Some of the monologue was obviously dry and needed spice. Some scenes deserved to be shortened, including many of the time-wasting party and club scenes. Sets were also sparse with detail, particularly the concert scenes. Camera angles on the house party were bouncing all over, as if this was extra footage from a reality-TV show. But it should be duly noted that this was not a train wreck. Yaya DaCosta, a beautiful model and blossoming actress, just like Whitney, emerged as the perfect choice to play the singer. She presented some of Houston’s most memorable tics. She looked poise and radiant. When it was time to get into beast mode with her co-star Arlen Escarpeta (Bobby Brown), the drama was puffed with intense. Her lip-synching needed a little extra work, as she motioned to the near-perfect covers provided by R&B songstress Deborah Cox, but she proved to be a formidable fit for the role. Cox’s vocals were probably as close to mirroring Houston, particularly in the cases of “I’m Your Baby Tonight” and the champion ballad “I Will Always Love You.” If there was one musical number anyone was upset with, the obvious lowered key change heard on “I’m Every Woman” was the right one to frown at. It sounded lethargic when compared with Houston’s C+C Music Factory original. But Cox, who could only be heard on the musical numbers, still proved to be an appropriate fit for this pressuring assignment.

Another positive footnote to gleam over was the casting: An unrecognizable Mark Rolston pulled off a near-perfect replica of Clive Davis; Wesley Jonathan squeezed into the role of Babyface; Deborah Joy Winans – cousin of CeCe – showed up in a very short scene at the Soul Train Awards. Suzzanne Douglas didn’t mirror her mother Cissy with perfection, but the confrontation during Houston’s engagement announcement proved to be one of the film’s highlights.




Some probably weren’t expecting to see all the cocaine use, the long-winded fight scenes and the overindulgence of the Bobby and Whitney narrative. And that is because the script was tailor made to focus on the ups and downs surrounding Whitney’s relationship with Bobby. So for those searching for something like Ray or something more definite on the life and legacy of Houston; wrong movie. There was absolutely no mention of Houston’s life prior to her sophomore album (1987’s Whitney) or any of the career shifts that troubled her in the 2000s. Her death was only mentioned in words before the final credits rolled. And like Bassett’s memorable appearance in What’s Love Got to Do With It, Houston’s story faded with one of the biggest tunes of her career (“I Will Always Love You”) while trying to fight through the final rounds of her love with her soon-to-be ex-husband. Actually Whitney mirrored a lot of the moves from the memorable Tina Turner bio pic.

For those who felt the film was full of inaccuracies and untruths, so was What’s Love Got To Do With It. No one said that Whitney was going to be all true. Yes, it’s based on a true story and true characters, but this is not a documentary. It’s still a story. And you have to treat this piece of work as such.

Lifetime movies are usually sappy and predictable. And it’s a point that Pat Houston takes to heart when tossing stones at Lifetime for their portrayal of Houston. But the programmers at the cable network know their demographic. They understand their audience. And women love a good drama full of romance and heartbreak. No wonder the script for ‘Whitney’ had all of that.

Where Pat Houston’s gripes are legitimate is when she addresses the low-budget value of this adventure. Whitney, produced for TV, was rendered a small budget. Two episodes of Arrow probably couldn’t squeeze into what was spent for this film.  But let’s give some extra credit to Bassett. For years since Houston’s passing, her estate has been extra protective of her image. This film finally put some of those things that were ambiguous to her story out there for us to talk about again. We’re even rethinking the relationship she had with longtime assistant and best friend Robyn Crawford (played by Yolonda Ross). We are once talking about Houston and the many troubling choices she made that ultimately claimed her life. Bassett has done a honorable thing. She might not have gotten everything right, but she most certainly raised the bar for the next generation of Whitney biopics.

And in Bassett’s words, she believes that: “Her life, her stardom was so massive. She deserves to have this movie, and another movie, and everything and anything else.”

As of now, Whitney holds a 6.5 rating average (out of 10) at imDb.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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