Beauty, a coming-of-age musical 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 verge of stardom. She is tall, slender and black, often dressed in shoulder pads and bright colors, first seen smoking a joint in her bedroom which her older brother warns will damage her voice – a voice which, we are told -on, is once in a generation, although we never hear it. Beauty (Gracie Marie Bradley), as she is oddly called, sings frequently, but the film layers background music or silence over her voice, keeping her at bay. It’s a central void emblematic of a hollow film that has nothing to say about anyone or anything, and on which we will obviously project our feelings for a Whitney Houston.
Waithe, a professed Whitney fan, has written a film that ties so closely to her biography that it seems inaccurate to call it anything other than an unauthorized biopic or, more specifically, fan fiction for early intimate relationships. from Houston with her friend and longtime assistant Robyn Crawford. . What Could Be Right – Valérie Lemercier’s Aline is an unsanctioned fan tribute to Celine Dion through her heartfelt quirkiness; there’s certainly a lot to explore in Houston and Crawford’s close friendship and physical relationship, which Crawford later said Houston ended to avoid scrutiny early in his career. But Beauty is simply using the relationship model for aesthetics, a vessel for a mood, as if to see their youthful, doomed romance through the lens of a modern music video. Dosunmu, an established music video director, stitches together beautiful shots of longing, pain, desire, closeness and jealousy between Beauty and her girlfriend Jazz (Aleyse Shannon). But bound by Waithe’s overly spared script, they feel isolated and going nowhere.
The film follows the last days of teenage Beauty’s anonymity as her family pressures her to sign a recording contract and end her relationship with Jazz, ending with her live television debut in the fictional Irv Merlin show (Houston’s first live TV appearance was on the Merv Griffin Show in 1983, when he was 19.) His mother, played by Niecy Nash, is a perfectionist singing teacher jealous of Beauty’s timing and talent; his father (Giancarlo Esposito, in one-note, cigar-biting villain mode) is an emotionally abusive bully who wants to make money off his record deal. Neither changes over the course of the film, and neither does Beauty, who a cynical and extractive record producer played by Sharon Stone says is “right on schedule” for a new pop star.
Waithe’s script is an early draft, with awkwardly affected nose dialogue by all but Nash, which does its best to elevate the listless material and flesh out a character stuck in an abusive marriage and perpetually adjacent to the spotlight. The characters constantly tell Beauty how beautiful she is, how talented she is, how perfect she is at the moment, while she says very little beyond vague, dreamy statements (“Where do you want to go?” car “Anywhere,” she replies) or left-field assertions of complete and dramatically undeserved assurance. Beauty, for all its sweeping gestures on important and thorny themes, has nothing to add to the lineage of musical biopics on the dark side of fame and fortune other than Dosunmu’s stylized shots of beauty and jazz in search of despair or heartbreak. It has nothing to do with fame beyond, as her manager puts it, that you have to “wear a mask.” He has nothing more to say about a closed relationship than, as his mother says, “the world isn’t ready for that.”
A better movie would have leaned into the turmoil of this crackdown, dug into the foundations of the relationship, sunk into the compromises the label pushed to make Beauty more palatable to white audiences, rather than posing it all as beau-sad . These poses sometimes work – Bradley and Shannon barely breathe life into the dialogue, but their tender physique, the performance of close intimacy, gives the film a much-needed warmth. Tellingly, the screen cracked the most when the camera panned to footage Beauty was watching from her predecessors, real-life performances from Houston influences like Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Patti LaBelle – past divas whose glamour, earth and command stand in stark contrast to the bland clichés of the film, or the emptiness of Belle’s voice.
The beauty is clearly made with great affection for her unspoken subject and acknowledgment of the emotional pain she felt as an ambitious young black woman in the spotlight. It’s a shame that doesn’t translate into interest in its fictional star, which remains a cipher. Hope I Want to Dance With Somebody, the authorized biopic slated for later this year, delves into Houston’s personal life to prove that she’s a real, complicated person rather than an empty aesthetic.