Beauty, a coming-of-age music drama written by Lena Waithe and directed by Andrew Dosunmu, purports to tell the story of a fictional young singer in early 1980s New Jersey on the brink of stardom. She is tall, willowy and black, frequently clad in shoulder pads and bright colors, first seen smoking a joint in her bedroom that her older brother warns will damage her voice – a voice which, we’re told, is once in a generation, though we never hear it. Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley), as she’s oddly called, frequently sings, but the film layers background music or silence over her voice, keeping it at a remove. It’s a central void emblematic of a hollow film which has little to say about anyone or anything, and onto which one will obviously project their feelings for one Whitney Houston.
Waithe, a professed Whitney fan, has written a film that hews so closely to her biography that it feels inaccurate to call it anything other than an unauthorized biopic or, more accurately, fan fiction for Houston’s early intimate relationship with longtime friend and assistant Robyn Crawford. Which could be fine – Valérie Lemercier’s Aline is a successful unauthorized fan tribute to Celine Dion through its sincere bizarreness; there’s certainly plenty to explore in Houston and Crawford’s close friendship and physical relationship, which Crawford later said Houston ended to avoid scrutiny in her early career. But Beauty simply uses the relationship template for aesthetic, a vessel for a mood, as if to view their youthful, doomed romance through the lens of a modern music video. Dosunmu, an established music video director, assembles beautiful shots of longing, pain, yearning, closeness and jealousy between Beauty and girlfriend Jazz (Aleyse Shannon). But strung together by Waithe’s too-spare script, they feel isolated and go nowhere.
The film follows the waning days of teenage Beauty’s anonymity, as her family pressures her to sign a record contract and cut off her relationship with Jazz, ending with her live television debut on the fictional Irv Merlin show (Houston’s first live television appearance was on the Merv Griffin show in 1983, at the age of 19.) Her mother, played by Niecy Nash, is a perfectionist vocal teacher jealous of Beauty’s timing and talent; her father (Giancarlo Esposito, in one-note, cigar-chomping villain mode) is an emotionally abusive bully who wants to make money through her record contract. Neither changes over the course of the film, and nor does Beauty, whom a cynical, extractive record producer played by Sharon Stone declares is “right on schedule” for a new pop star.
Waithe’s script is first draft material, with on-the-nose dialogue awkwardly affected by all except Nash, who is doing her best to elevate listless material and flesh out a character stuck in an abusive marriage and perpetually adjacent to the spotlight. Characters constantly tell Beauty how beautiful she is, how talented she is, how perfect she is for the moment, all while she says very little beyond vague, dreamy statements (“Where do you want to go?” he dad asks, stepping into the car. “Anywhere,” she answers) or left-field assertions of complete, dramatically unearned self-assurance. Beauty, for all its broad gestures at big, thorny themes, has nothing to add to the lineage of music biopics about the dark side of fame and fortune other than Dosunmu’s stylized shots of Beauty and Jazz looking forlorn, or torn. It has nothing to say about stardom beyond, as her manager says, that you have to “wear a mask”. It has nothing more to say about a closeted relationship than, as her mother says, “the world ain’t ready for that”.
A better film would have leaned into the turmoil of that repression, dug into the foundations of the relationship, pressed into the compromises the record label pushed for Beauty to be more palatable to white audiences, rather than posed it all as beautiful-sad. Those poses sometimes work – Bradley and Shannon barely breathe life into the dialogue, but their tender physicality, the performance of close intimacy, gives the film some much-needed warmth. It’s telling that the screen crackled most when the camera turned to footage Beauty watched of her predecessors, actual performances by Houston’s influences such as Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle – earlier divas whose glamour, earthiness, and command stand in stark contrast to the film’s bland cliches, or the void of Beauty’s voice.
Beauty is clearly made with great affection for its unspoken subject, and acknowledgement of the emotional pain she experienced as a young ambitious black woman in the spotlight. It’s a shame that doesn’t translate into interest for its fictional star, who remains a cipher. Here’s to hoping I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the authorized biopic due later this year, delves into Houston’s personal life for evidence of a real, complicated person rather than for empty aesthetic.