It’s been more than 15 years since Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story pretty much parodied the musical biopic format. And after last year’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, you’d think some filmmakers would take a different approach. Whitney Houston passed away unexpectedly in the spring of 2012. She was only 48.
Somehow, the right filmmaker could’ve told a new fresh story that would’ve portrayed her life differently. The problem is we had already seen it played out over the years from when she first burst on the scene. Whitney Houston: I want to Dance with Somebody is less of an in-depth look at her life but more of a summary. Kasi Lemmons, as director, barely scratches the surface of Whitney’s life. And the big focus that she was used by everyone around her is a no-brainer. Sadly, Naomi Ackle never really does show us much of Whitney, but I think she’s held back by the cookie-cutter script.
Her father, John (Clarke Peters), saw Whitney as a cash-cow and drove her to make money while he lived high on the hog, smoking cigars in lobbies of luxorious hotels negotiating deals. John makes Jamie Spears look like Ward Clever. And then there’s Cissy (Tamara Tunie), her mother, who saw her own spotlight fade and felt she could live through Whitney. And the movie hints that there was abuse well into her late teens as Cissy threatens to use corporal punishment anytime she feels like it.
And then, there was her ill-fated marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), who only saw Whitney as a meal ticket. There’s a scene in which they fight and argue in which Bobby refuses to leave even though the house and everything is in Whitney’s name. Pretty much, Bobby was over and out by the time he married Whitney. He had a little bit of minor success in the 1980s with New Edition and his own solo career, but it was a marriage of convenience. And since Whitney was in an abusive household growing up, Bobby was able to attach himself on to her because that’s what narcissists due to empaths.
Sadly, Lemmons, Ackles and writer Anthony McCarten never examine her relationships further. It’s just to show that Whitney was screwed from the beginning. She had met and fallen in love with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) in the early 1980s. Nowadays, not many would’ve cared if a pop singer was a lesbian or bisexual, but Whitney had to hide it by calling Robyn her assistant. Sadly, it was Robyn who was the only one who loved Whitney for who she was and maybe the only one who Whitney really loved. Yet, we don’t see that as they are arguing more.
And that brings the movie to another issue with Whitney, Lemmons and McCarten just skim over – the fact that people saw Whitney as “not black enough.” Watching her physical transformation from the early days in which she meets Clive Davie (Stanley Tucci, who is one of the movie’s highlights) to when she bursts on the scene later, she goes from being someone you couldn’t pick out of a crowded room to a woman who stood out because she commanded the room. And part of that was making her look less like she black young woman with a questionable relationship to being more acceptable by middle America with her big curly hair.
The record label, Davis and even her parents were wanting to make her look more white as they don’t like black women with short hair, which is what Whitney had on the cover of her debut album. Whitney had to look a way for her albums to be bought at K-Mart and Wal-Mart that young white girls (and boys) wouldn’t have to hide from their bigoted Boomer parents. This is mentioned in a radio interview but it’s quickly smoothed over.
The same happens at an awards show where Whitney sees and hears herself being booed while Janet Jackson wins. The irony that Jackson, who was raised in a household as Jehovah’s Witnesses, was considered more black than Whitney is another wasted element for Lemmons. I’m not saying that Lemmons had to make this a biopic that looked at the racial divide but most people criticized Whitney for “sounding white” and unable to dance. They wouldn’t have said that a white singer is unable to dance.
It’s obvious to anyone who knew about Whitney’s amazing rise in the 1980s that she was still young and gullible to fully understand what was happening. John starts a business and fools around with women while spending her money left and right. Davis, who is credited as a producer, doesn’t get off as easy either as he knew in the Reaganeighties, people wanted a singer who looked like they could guest-star easily on The Cosby Show. It’s pretty obvious why some people confused Ralph Tresvant, the lead singer of New Edition, with Michael Jackson.
A better movie for Whitney would’ve focused on her rise through the 1980s to her performance singing the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl and then her success as an actress. Instead, there seems to be more of a focus on her downfall. And following the backlash following Blonde and reports the upcoming Amy Winehouse biopic is going to focus more on her substance abuse problems means audiences are tired of seeing celebrities, especially women, exploited for entertainment.
I agree. The Bodyguard got mixed to negative reviews but it made a fortune. Why does it matter what the critics think? I remember everyone was talking about it for months and you couldn’t turn on MTV or the radio without hearing Whitney’s cover of “I Will Always Love You.” Adam Sandler makes awful movies that make a lot of money but he didn’t endure the same criticism. Instead, we see more of a focus on Whitney’s miscarriage during production of the movie. Waiting to Exhale and The Preacher’s Wife aren’t even mentioned but the TV movie Cinderella is mentioned in passing.
Part of me wonders if Lemmons, who has proven to be a great filmmaker with her previous works, was forced to make a more by the numbers biopic by TriStar Pictures and their parent company, Sony. As Whitney’s life spirals into drug addiction and a push to tour even though her health won’t allow it, it feels more and more like exploitation. Since they also used 95 percent of Whitney’s actual recordings in the movie, it lacks the musical appeal of Bohemian Rhapsody, a flawed biopic that at least thrilled us with the Live Aid performance.
Thankfully, Lemmons doesn’t show Whitney’s final moments even though it’s focus on her life close to the end. There’s a unique way she was getting her drugs that I won’t reveal. But sadly, the filmmakers want to have it both ways, they want to show that Whitney was a remarkable performer who broke records but also her downfall was inevitable because everyone used her up and spat her out.
In the end, she’s still being exploited a decade later.
What do you think? Please comment.