Even in the worst music biopics, there is always some sort of dramatic juice in the moments where we get to see the musician hone their craft. Whether they are in a recording studio, on stage, or just sitting around with collaborators and an instrument, seeing a musician find the song that will go on to become a signature sound of so many people’s lives and memories is thrilling. In recent years, this is best showcased in the Brian Wilson biopic “Love & Mercy,” where we see Paul Dano painstakingly crafting what would become the album “Pet Sounds.”
Whitney Houston wasn’t a songwriter. She was a singer and performer. So, while we may not have scenes of her creating a song from scratch, we should surely have scenes of Naomi Ackie as Houston molding previously written material to her exquisite voice, right? Wrong. Without fail, every scene of discovering what would be Houston’s next #1 single follows the exact same path. She and record executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) will be sitting in his office listening to a string of cassette tapes until one strikes their fancy. Cut to: Whitney Houston perfectly performing the song we all know. By cutting out all of the work that goes into crafting a #1 single, it strips Houston of her humanity. If she just immediately delivers the perfect recording or performance, talent is all she is. We are meant to think she deserves her success because she won the vocal lottery and not because of the human effort and toll it takes to create. A god becoming successful has no dramatic stakes because it is predestined. A human becoming successful, however, can be a triumph.
The desire to make her otherworldly hinders the other side of the story as well. Houston’s life featured quite a bit of tragedy, namely a truly sad drug addiction that eventually contributed to her death at just 48 years old. The film is ultimately too afraid to confront us with the true ugliness that addiction can cause. Even though drugs became so important in the second half of her life, we barely see her use them on screen, and the effects of them are minimally rendered. Director Kasi Lemmons will very occasionally speed up some cuts or have the sound drop out of a performance to signify her mental state, but those moments are few and far between. Because Houston is no longer with us, there is always a desire to honor a person’s legacy, but there is a difference between honoring and lionizing.
Even with all that, Whitney Houston is not nearly as much of a saint as Clive Davis is portrayed here. He is constantly at her side and never takes advantage of his position of power in any way. He very well could be like this, but also, Davis just so happens to be one of the producers of the film, which basically tells you all you need to know about how deep they are willing to dig into him.