The editing choices by Daysha Broadway (“Insecure”) are driven by a bare necessity to advance the narrative but not any emotional momentum. Some of her dissonant decisions are unintentionally comedic in an “It’s so bad, it’s entertaining” way, like when Houston’s father threatens his daughter with litigation from his hospital bed—the next cut is to his funeral.
And the way that Lemmons stages certain scenes doesn’t cohere with how humans communicate. One sequence, occurring in the singer’s dressing room, sees Crawford, Houston, and Brown discussing business. Rather than cutting between each person, Lemmons stages the trio in a three-shot in which they don’t face each other but stare awkwardly into a dressing room mirror, giving the appearance of them stiffly speaking to their reflections.
We never get a sense from this film of Houston as a person; Ackie might as well be a hologram performing these songs. Her marriage to Brown lacks a visible arc; the role that Crawford played in Houston’s life after Brown entered is never discussed (though Williams pulls some laughs through her energetic verve); and Cissy and John serve little purpose (Peters makes some very odd, grating choices). But you can’t blame any of the actors for coming up short. The script, the editing, the cinematography, and every component of what makes a movie—aside from the impeccable costuming—undermines the performances here.
The jukebox element of a musical biopic will always prove a hit. The film, however, must be as transcendent as the songbook. None of the performances, unfortunately, are filmed well by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”). The lighting proves inconsistent, and his shaky cam style plays incongruously with the musical staging. Only the tunes themselves make these scenes remotely watchable. It’s a sad development, and for a director of Lemmons’ caliber, it is particularly shocking.
It’s never clear what destination this film is heading toward, or what climax we’re climbing up to. The score by Chanda Dancy turns unbearably soapy and melodramatic as we fast-forward to Houston’s 2009 performance on Oprah, and then her life in Los Angeles in 2012. These events are boxes on a checklist. They would bloat the movie if a scene ever played long enough to fulfill the definition of a scene.