There’s an excellent reason “Directed by Angela Bassett” is plastered all over the ads for Lifetime’s Whitney Houston biopic — entitled, simply, Whitney — and the reason is Aaliyah. Bassett is the network’s way of saying, “We’re sorry. We promise we won’t screw things up like when we let Wendy Williams do that Aaliyah flick. This one will be all about Quality. This time we’re bringing in an Oscar-nominated Hollywood leading lady who starred in Waiting To Exhale — you remember, the movie where Whitney sang that ‘Shoop Shoop’ song. Give us another chance, America. We promise there will be music and romance. And drugs. Lots of those.”
Whitney tells the Bobby Brown side of the story, rather than her mama Cissy Houston’s side, already detailed in the heartfelt 2013 memoir Remembering Whitney. (Best line: “As much as I love my daughter, Nippy was no angel. She could be a straight-up heifer to people.”) In this version, Bobby is the innocent victim corrupted by Whitney’s party-hearty habits. She’s the one who lures him into drugs, snorting up a storm while he clutches his beer and says, “I’ll stick with this.” Ah, right, sure.
Fans might have an issue or two with the dubious pro-Bobby angle, but Yaya DeCosta makes a likeable heroine. She was a runner-up on Season Three of America’s Top Model, which might explain why she does so much smizing in her version of “I’m Every Woman.” She’s almost too animated to play Whitney — she’s a much better dancer, though you can tell she’s making an effort to hold back. The actual singing is by Deborah Cox, the Nineties R&B diva fondly remembered for “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here,” which ruled the radio the same winter as Whitney’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and will always reduce me to a puddle of slush.
Bassett or no Bassett, Whitney is still a cheese-intensive Lifetime melodrama, using all the tricks of the trade: a young woman with big dreams, a man who fails her, family disapproval, career pressure, motherhood, lies, tears, long talks with Babyface. Here are the 10 pulpiest — and therefore best — moments. As a great woman once sang: I don’t know why I like it. I just do.
1. Whitney meets Bobby, feels the heat.
First scene: our girl in her limo, en route to the 1989 Soul Train Awards, sighing, “Time to become Whitney Houston.” You can instantly tell this is the kind of low-budget Lifetime movie where they scrounge up a couple dozen extras to play an entire mob of fans swarming the red carpet. Whitney is transfixed by seeing Bobby sing “Every Little Step.” They flirt backstage, joking about how she didn’t win any awards. (“I’m happy for my girl Anita” — sure you are, Whitney). Right before she goes onstage to sing “The Greatest Love of All,” she declares, “As of tonight, I am a Bobby Brown fan!” What could go wrong?
2. Their first date.
Shopping, obviously. “We are in Beverly Hills, baby! Rodeo Drive!” Bobby yells. They get mobbed by fans on the sidewalk — it looks like the same extras from the Soul Train Awards. Time-warp factor: Bobby has to ask if anyone wants a photo with him. Fans were so much more polite back then!
3. Bobby opens his mail.
Bobby is grooving to his Walkman on the terrace when his maid brings the mail. Nice haul: There’s a check for $24 million and an invitation to Whitney Houston’s 26th birthday party. The invitation helpfully reads, “You Are Cordially Invited to Whitney Houston’s 26th Birthday Party.”
4. Whitney saves all her love, none of her drugs for Bobby.
Whitney lures Bobby upstairs, casually snorting fistfuls of blow as she walks him through her private trophy room, with a piano and gold records all over the walls. (Jesus, that is some un-Whit-worthy wood paneling.) He looks into her eyes and charms her with his patented Bobby Brown sweet-talk: “Up close, you are so friggin’ beautiful.” Before you know it, they’re bonding over her VHS tape of the Seventies girl-group movie Sparkle. (“Irene Cara, she was something!” “Wasn’t she?”) When Whitney confesses that she tends to scare men away, he replies, “Maybe they just don’t know how to handle you. Not like Bobby Brown would!”
5. The guy who plays Clive Davis is a scream.
Mark Rolston needs to play all schmoozy record-label bosses in Lifetime movies from now on. (He was a sleazy detective on The Shield as well as a white supremacist in Lethal Weapon 2.) “How’s my favorite staaaaah?” Clive gushes as Whitney struts into his office in a yellow power suit. But he plotzes when she takes out a cigarette. “Not in my office! Whitney, you need to protect the voice. And stay away from yellow — it makes you look like a canary.”
6. Their first fight!
Whitney and Bobby attend a banquet honoring her contributions to the United Negro College Fund, but Mr. My Prerogative gets jealous after seeing Eddie Murphy flirt with her via a remote video link from the set of Another 48 Hours. On their way home, in the back of her limo, the tension explodes into a tickle fight.
7. Whitney watches Sparkle alone in her room.
As our girl once sang, “When the night falls, loneliness calls.” Whit lounges in her pajamas, eating cold spaghetti while she recites the dialogue out loud along with her favorite movie. It’s the dressing-room scene where the mother confronts Lonette McKee about her no-account thug boyfriend: “Baby, he’s just gonna drag you to the gutter with him.” Foreshadowing!
8. Whitney tells her family she’s getting married.
Her mama’s immediate reaction: “I hope it’s not Bobby Brown.” Cissy, for some reason, is not 100 per cent overjoyed at the idea of her little Nippy marrying the artist who’s about to release “Humpin’ Around.” Yet it’s all blamed on Cissy’s snobbery, as she scoffs, “You can take the boy out the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out the boy.” (Cissy is the fantastic Suzanne Douglas, who played one of Bassett’s girlfriends in How Stella Got Her Groove Back.)
9. Downward spiral time.
Suffering from career decline and writer’s block, Bobby sits at the piano crumpling up pieces of paper (as you do). Then he calls L.A. Reid’s assistant, screams “You just tell him Bobby Brown got some brand new licks that’s about to blow his mind!” and slams down the phone.
10. Bobby tries to come between Whitney and her crack pipe.
Bad move, Bobby. She starts slapping him in the chest and screaming tearfully, i.e. the universal sign that you are entering the final 15 minutes of a Lifetime movie. That sets up the big ending: Whitney belts “I Will Always Love You,” while Bobby stands on the side of the stage and feels the pain. Bit-tah-sweet. Memories. That’s all I’m taking with me. Yeah, it’s basically the same final scene as The Bodyguard. Can you blame them?
Not mentioned in this movie: Mariah Carey, Oprah, Aretha, Dolly Parton, Kevin Costner, Silver Spoons, the Being Bobby Brown reality series, the rest of New Edition, Whitney’s best hit (“How Will I Know?”) or Whitney’s best album (My Love Is Your Love). Lines never uttered in this movie: “Hell to the no,” “Crack is wack,” “I don’t know why I like it — I just do,” “I want to dance with somebody who loves me.”