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Lifetime’s ‘Whitney’ Suffers From Predictability

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By Kevin C. Johnson

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

(TNS)

“Whitney” is everything you’d expect from an unauthorized Lifetime biopic about Whitney Houston. That’s not good news for Houston fans.

Aside from strong lead performances from Yaya DaCosta and Arlen Escarpeta, “Whitney” is mostly a mess.

It’s not as bad as Lifetime’s recent Aaliyah movie, but this directorial debut from actress Angela Bassett, hastily shot in three weeks, feels tired.

“Whitney” focuses on the singer’s tumultuous marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown, ditching coverage of her early years and the circumstances of her tragic death in 2012.

The TV movie opens at the 1989 Soul Train Awards where Brown and Houston first meet. Returning from the stage to her seat in the audience, Houston annoys Brown by repeatedly bumping into his big hair. Backstage, they meet more appropriately, and a connection is made.

Before the first commercial break, Houston is shown as a high-flying, coke-sniffing party girl, reaching for drugs when she’s feeling good or bad.

Escarpeta’s Brown comes off mostly as a good guy who fell for a wild girl and watched her get wilder before succumbing to some of the same vices.

Their romance is depicted on a surface level, breezily sailing through key points: her fame eclipsing his, the birth of their daughter and a miscarriage during the making of “The Bodyguard.” The movie fails at really exploring the couple’s ups and downs.

And forget about any real-life attempts Houston may have had at rehab. They aren’t depicted here.

Mark Rolston is on the mark as record executive Clive Davis, who famously went ahead with his Grammy night party the day Houston drowned in her hotel bathtub. Here, he tries to get Houston to tour shortly after she gives birth to Bobbi Kristina. Rolston’s couple of scenes imply how little Davis may have actually cared about Houston except for her money-making abilities.

A scene with Davis and Brown rings false, as do the staging of all of the musical performances, which have the production values of a college talent show.

But a scene where Houston dreamily watches the original 1976 version of “Sparkle” sings. She’s focused on a scene with character actress Mary Alice as Effie. Houston’s fans know of her affection for “Sparkle,” and she would assume the role of Effie in the remake of the movie, released after Houston’s death.

DeCosta, who made her name first as a finalist on “America’s Next Top Model” and then on “Ugly Betty” and in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” makes the most of what she’s given.

Her lip syncing during the few musical numbers, including the climactic “I Will Always Love You,” is as convincing as Deborah Cox’s vocals. (Cox, a strong enough artist to sing a duet with Houston on 2000’s “Same Script, Different Cast,” stands in for Houston’s vocals, which aren’t used here.)

Escarpeta, a horror movie veteran from the “Friday the 13th” reboot and “Final Destination 5,” comes through in a similarly tricky portrayal.

Suzzanne Douglas is a dud as singer Cissy Houston, Whitney’s mother. Yolonda Ross plays Robyn, Houston’s assistant and often-rumored lover, a relationship that is suggested in the movie.

“Whitney” can’t capture a persona as large as Houston’s. A big screen movie or HBO treatment would have made much sweeter noise.

‘WHITNEY’

1.5 stars (out of four)

When: 8 p.m. ET, Saturday, Jan. 17

Where: Lifetime

©2015 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Visit the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at www.stltoday.com

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Lifetime’s ‘Whitney’ Suffers From Predictability