Though Whitney Houston’s untimely death at age 48 was one of the biggest stories in the world, Lifetime’s new biopic about the singer, “Whitney,” doesn’t include that fact. Director Angela Bassett doesn’t even want to go there – partly for logistical reasons, since it’s a TV movie and not a full-length feature. Plus, because seeing the tragedy would “break our hearts” again.
In February 2012, the night before the Grammy Awards, Houston was found dead in a hotel bathtub; the cause of death was listed as drowning, heart disease and cocaine use. Though “Whitney” (airing Saturday night on Lifetime) does address Houston’s problems with addiction, the film ends years before she passes away.
Bassett (the Oscar-nominated actress is making her directorial debut) wanted to focus the movie on the love story between Houston and her ex-husband, Bobby Brown. The public heard about their tortured relationship – involving domestic abuse and drug addiction – but Bassett says it’s important to remember that it started much differently.
“Our story is only five years,” Bassett said, talking about the time span of the movie, which starts in 1989 when Houston and Brown meet at the Soul Train Awards. The script was written by Shem Bitterman, also the writer of “Betty & Coretta,” another Lifetime movie in which Bassett starred.
“As a public, we know how it ultimately ends,” Bassett explained. “But we only follow a five-year period of [Whitney and Bobby’s] life together, and that’s the sweet spot of their youth and their success.”
Indeed, Houston (played by Yaya DaCosta) and Brown (Arlen Escarpeta) are pictured as a couple completely, crazy in love at the beginning of the movie – but it trails off before it really depicts when things got ugly. Bassett cited the fact that there’s only so much you can show in a two-hour (84 minutes of actual footage) TV movie, but mostly, it would be too difficult for the audience to see again.
“We get an inkling. We get a glimpse at where it’s going. But we don’t go fully there. We don’t need to. We know it, and I think it would only break our hearts again, you know?” Bassett said. “And we don’t need that.”
How did she stay so positive? Bassett said while directing the film, she was inspired by her time spent with Houston when they worked together on the film “Waiting to Exhale” in 1995, where she met both Houston and Brown.
Bassett recalls Brown visiting the set and he was “delightful, warm and respectful” to everyone he met. “Of course we all have these ideas and preconception,” Bassett said, adding she felt that was the man who Houston fell in love with. “But it was right there he made quite a warm and loving first impression in person.”
Using that feeling as inspiration, Bassett was able to zero in on the happier times in their relationship, including the birth of their daughter Bobbi Kristina. Though some drug use and infidelity is included (and there is one scene where Brown physically grabs Houston), mostly, they’re just in love over a happier time in their careers, when Houston is on top of the world with the international success of “The Bodyguard.”
“I think just this five years, maybe we see who they were, what it was and in a really great world. You can put yourself in those shoes and imagine how you would have fared,” Bassett said. “Or you can see a bit of yourself. I mean that’s what life is, it’s about relationships and choices you know? It’s not the one big choice you make, it’s all the little ones along the way. So hopefully people will get a little more – from our 84-minute movie – insight into the journey that was the love story between Whitney and Bobby.”
Also worth noting: When the film is over at 10 p.m., Lifetime airs “Bobby Brown: Remembering Whitney,” an interview between Brown and “Access Hollywood” correspondent Shaun Robinson.