On Saturday, Lifetime devotes an entire night of programming to the late pop superstar Whitney Houston.
At 8 p.m. it will air the two-hour biopic “Whitney,” directed by Houston’s “Waiting to Exhale” costar Angela Bassett in her directorial debut. “Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney” follows at 10 with the Boston native discussing his sometimes tumultuous 15-year marriage to Houston with Shaun Robinson of “Access Hollywood.” And at 11, record mogul Clive Davis, Houston’s longtime mentor, hosts “Whitney Houston Live: Her Greatest Performances,” looking back on her career with clips from the recently released DVD of the same name.
Houston, one of the biggest pop stars of her generation until her death in 2012, is certainly worthy of the attention, but only one of Lifetime’s three programs is sure to do any justice to Houston’s legacy.
One day a great film might be made about Houston’s life, but “Whitney” is not it.
While neither overly salacious or reverent, “Whitney” — which focuses almost exclusively on her relationship with Brown — lacks dynamism in telling the tale of a very dynamic life, and falls short of illuminating anything about Houston that both diehard fans and casual observers of pop culture didn’t already know.
Bassett, a strong actress, certainly knows something about depicting the life of a musical artist, scoring an Oscar nomination herself for playing Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” But that film had one thing going for it that “Whitney” doesn’t: It featured the singer’s actual voice.
As with Lifetime’s misbegotten Aaliyah film, Houston’s estate did not allow the filmmakers to use the singer’s recordings. YaYa DaCosta does bear a resemblance to Houston and nails many of her mannerisms, but she is not a singer. So veteran R&B singer Deborah Cox re-created some of her friend’s most famous vocals — “I Will Always Love You,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “I’m Your Baby Tonight” — and DaCosta lip-syncs to them. Cox is a gifted vocalist in her own right, and DaCosta is an apt mime. But that’s also exactly what “Whitney” feels like: faking it. And for a film about an artist revered for her voice, that approach is woefully low-rent.
The next problem comes from the slice of Houston’s life that the film focuses on, and the superficial and haphazard way Bassett works through it.
“Whitney” begins with Houston and Brown (Arlen Escarpeta, who bears little resemblance to the man he’s playing) first meeting at the Soul Train Awards. They are both already stars, and we get zero back story on how they got there. So when we are introduced to other people in their life, they have no context or dimensionality.
We then zoom through their courtship, her star eclipsing his, the birth of their daughter, and then the drug-addled hard times that both singers have acknowledged. And then “Whitney” just sort of ends with a title card telling us that Brown and Houston eventually got divorced. For a film presented as a love story, there’s not much warmth to it.
Brown might have interesting things to say in the interview that follows the film, but Houston’s fans would be better off checking out the “Greatest Performances” special, which serves as a potent reminder of just how good she really was. From talk and awards show appearances to live concert performances, the special captures the power of Houston’s gift and the unbridled joy she took in sharing it.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.