We need a new term to describe the sort of history on offer in “Whitney,” the Whitney Houston biopic that airs Saturday on Lifetime. “Revisionist history” doesn’t quite capture it; that implies a cogently argued counternarrative, with some kind of ideological motivation. And “selective history” isn’t quite right either; that implies a narrative arc sandpapered down to cohesion in service of one idea about a person.
Maybe “fantastical history” is the term? For two hours, this film cherry-picks moments of Ms. Houston’s life — some recognizable, some not — and stitches them together into a perplexing, not altogether comforting quilt.
In this film, Ms. Houston (Yaya DaCosta) is a towering talent, a movie star, a pop queen. She is a loyal wife and a heartbroken woman. She is a drug user and a has-been. All of those things were true, but the percentages of each in this movie hardly jibe with the public record. This is someone’s version of Ms. Houston’s life, maybe even Ms. Houston’s own — the film was directed by Angela Bassett and written by Shem Bitterman — but it feels as if it were conceived and executed from afar.
What’s more, this is a biopic that’s skeptical of its subject, that at times appears to be working actively against her interests. Often Ms. Houston isn’t the hero; her ex-husband, Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta), is. Their tumultuous relationship was tabloid chum for years, with Mr. Brown often portrayed as the rambunctious force destabilizing Ms. Houston. Even if that’s not true, it’s unlikely that he served only as a moral, responsibility-spouting counterbalance, as he is consistently painted in this film. The first time we see Ms. Houston using cocaine, he’s the abstainer and voice of reason. When she suggests they’re moving too fast as a couple, he stands up for the fierceness of their love. When he storms out, she turns back to cocaine, her other rock. Only when Ms. Houston’s success leaves Mr. Brown feeling diminished does he falter, but at the end, he’s a sober hero, and Ms. Houston is in free fall.
This film also has axes to grind. Clive Davis, the mogul who discovered Ms. Houston, appears a couple of times, but only as a monstrous figure of music-business bottom-line obsession, who doesn’t bring a gift for the couple’s baby and who uses Mr. Brown to get Ms. Houston touring when she’d prefer to be at home with her child.
Ms. DaCosta fluently mimics Ms. Houston’s gestural tics, the quick neck-snaps and chin-juts that she brought to her performances. And Ms. Houston’s vocals are delivered gloriously by Deborah Cox, the rare singer who can even approximate Ms. Houston’s pyrotechnics. (The music is replicated serviceably by the pop-R&B producer RedOne.)
This makes for at least one kind of improvement over Lifetime’s recent tragically clunky Aaliyah biopic: “Whitney” is better in other ways, too, but the verisimilitude in the music is paramount, with the outstanding costume design by Mona May — all sharp shoulders and billowy dresses — a close second. But both of these films lack so much that their reasons for being feel flimsy.
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“Whitney” is being shown in conjunction with “Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney,” an hourlong interview with Mr. Brown conducted by the journalist Shaun Robinson, which is far more riveting than the film that occasions its existence. (A collection of Ms. Houston’s best live performances, hosted by Mr. Davis, will follow the Brown interview, though perhaps Mr. Davis had not seen the film before signing on.)
Here, Mr. Brown doesn’t need a director and screenwriter to build sympathy for him. He comes off as meditative and warm, if somewhat selective in memory. “I know the role I played in Whitney’s life,” he says, “and it’s not the role that they think I played in Whitney’s life.”
He says the first time he saw Ms. Houston use cocaine was on their honeymoon. (For what it’s worth, that’s not the story the film tells.) And he says he never felt threatened by the size of Ms. Houston’s fame. (Ditto.) And he says both he and Ms. Houston were unfaithful in their marriage. (The film shows only him cheating.) Ms. Robinson does an admirable job of pressing Mr. Brown on the details of Ms. Houston’s drug use, and his own, and about the walls between him and her family, which he insists aren’t there. And the archival photos and video footage interspersed throughout tell a much sadder and more vivid story than the film does. Ms. Houston, who died in 2012 at 48, was a star in visible decay.
Maybe no one would have been able to save her, not least the person who’d gone down the spiral with her, even if he’d pulled himself up. Mr. Brown, who was not involved with the film, answers the what-if with an elegant statement of almost-regret: “Sometimes we, you know, love a person so hard that we’re loving them wrong, and maybe I did that.” It’s a sentiment the creators of “Whitney” may well relate to, when they have the chance to look back.