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Fantasia Hits A Sour Note In Autobiopic

Backstage at
Backstage at "American Idol," Fantasia contemplates whether to quit the singing competition. (Lifetime)
By Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006

Yes, "The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale" is bad -- bad as in not good. From god-awful title to clunky script to ham-handed direction by Debbie Allen.

You know a script's in trouble when hairdos serve as shorthand for character development: Pigtails to signify childhood innocence; marcel waves and a weave as stand-ins for a teenager trying out her newfound sexuality; cropped, "jacked-up" hair to portray a downslide into unwed teen motherhood and chaotic ghetto life.

And to top off this series of unfortunate decisions: It's not a good idea to let a non-actor play herself in a made-for-TV movie about her life.

"The Fantasia Barrino Story," based on the 2004 "American Idol" winner's best-selling tell-all book, is guilty of all those things.

The Grammy-nominated Barrino -- who penned the lyrics to her anthem "Baby Mama" -- does play herself, and, no, she cannot act. At all.

Still, despite Barrino's flat delivery of some cringe-inducing dialogue ("She's going to have a hole in her heart where you used to be"), the singer possesses no shortage of charm and believability. It is Barrino's innate sweetness and vulnerability, in fact, coupled with a stellar supporting cast -- Loretta Devine, Viola Davis and the fantastic Jamia Simone Nash as a young Barrino -- that save the made-for-Lifetime TV movie (debuting tonight) from being a total catastrophe.

It helps, of course, to know that all its melodrama is based on some semblance of reality. The scene in which Barrino is date-raped by the It Boy at school and then stumbles home, barefoot and singing to herself, is so overplayed that it's almost a parody of an "After School Special." It's tempting to mock it, except for the realization that for all the over-the-top draaaah-ma, this is something that really happened. And the viewer might feel guilty for the urge to snicker.

Which makes for a complicated viewing experience.

Fans of "American Idol" and readers of Barrino's autobiography, "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale," are already intimate with the low lows and high highs of Barrino's past: Apparently, if we are to believe the movie, "Idol" execs weren't aware of her hard-knock life, even though biographical tidbits about the contestants are typical publicity fodder -- the better to get viewers hooked into the action enough to pick up the phone and vote for their favorite singer.

But let's not let truth get in the way of a good story. The film opens with Barrino sitting backstage as some officious "Idol" execs inform her of all the "mean" things that they're saying about her in the big, bad world of the Internet: That she's an unwed teen mom and a barely literate high school dropout. That she's hardly a role model worthy of "Idol"-dom.

"You can always quit," one of the network suits tells her. "No shame."

(Hint, hint.)

But of course she's not going to quit! Instead, Barrino turns to look into the mirror, lifting her chin in plucky determination. Right on cue, it's flashback time, back to a High Point, N.C., childhood with her churchgoing family, headed by Kadeem Hardison as her starry-eyed and domineering father. The whole family sings, from her powerhouse mother (Davis, who was in "Antwone Fisher") to her two elder brothers, but it is a very young Barrino who can sahng , upstaging everybody again and again with that big, bluesy voice of hers. (Devine plays Barrino's no-nonsense preacher grandmother.)

A failed record deal dashes the family's gospel dreams, and Fantasia soon forgets about singing (though all her boyfriends call her "Songbird") until she has an epiphany in a church and realizes that she was born to belt. From there, as we see in a few scenes that alternate between reenactments and actual "Idol" footage, it's a quick, short trip to the top. (Barrino was 19 when she won.)

Then, home in on a triumphant Barrino singing in the spotlight. The End.

The film suffers from vagueness, feeling like little more than a series of loosely stitched-together scenes, more of an outline of a story than a story itself. And while her pre-"Idol" life was indeed a troubled one, it's no different from the other sad stories that we hear daily.

Single moms might be the "backbone of the 'hood," as Barrino sings, but in this instance, we don't see nearly enough spine in this baby mama's drama.

The Fantasia Barrino Story: Life Is Not a Fairy Tale (two hours) debuts tonight at 9 on Lifetime.

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