I said pretty much everything I wanted to say about Whitney Houston in my review of the two documentaries that came out after her death, Kevin MacDonald's WHITNEY and Nick Broomfield’s WHITNEY: CAN I BE ME? I felt the latter was particularly insightful about the problems Whitney faced due to her sexuality in a homophobic world; her persona as a post-racial artist in a highly racially charged world; and the less that ideal family life that certainly included drugs from the start, and potentially also sexual abuse. The docs were both good but both helped and hindered by lack of co-operation with the family. By contrast, this new fictionalised biopic is both helped and hindered by the reverse.
Clive Davis, Whitney's record label CEO, is one of the producers on the film, and as played by Stanley Tucci is an avuncular witty and caring presence. No shit. The villains of the piece are her controlling and exploitative father (Clarke Peters), and the burden of expectations of an ever-greater entourage and family and public. Bobby Brown is unlikeable as an abusive adulterer but Whitney's drug use is conveniently enabled by an anonymous white - natch - drug peddler. The film mostly proceeds as a series of set-piece performances that we are already intimately aware of, and while Naomie Ackie does a really great job imitating Whitney's facial expressions, it's just not the same as watching the old footage. The problem is that when you devote tens of minutes to music montages, there's very little space left for actual explorative dramatic writing, and even if there was, I'm not sure writer Anthony McCarten would be the man for the job, given his hackneyed work here and on BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY.
I think anyone embarking on a project like this - or any artist interpreting a subject that has already been treated many times - should ask themselves what they can bring to the table. What is their particular take - their particular insight? Or failing that, what is it that the medium of fiction film can bring that documentary can't? Well, clearly if we're just imitating Whitney's videos and concert performances that's low value add, if not value negative to watching the real footage. What a dramatic treatment COULD have brought is real insight into her state of mind, and the emotional toll of being closeted, hated by her own black peers, and exploited by her own family. I wanted less music and more drama. Still, you shouldn't review the film that wasn't made, just the one in front of you. And it's fine. Really fine. But the docs are better.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY has a running time of 144 minutes and is rated PG-13. It was released last December.
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