DaCosta (pictured with co-star Escarpeta) perfectly captures the essence of Houston when she takes the stage in the biopic.
Yaya DaCosta misses a beat here and there but nails it when it comes to Houston’s searing stage presence.
I first saw Yaya DaCosta when she, as Tyra Banks puts it, was still in the running to become America’s Next Top Model.
Way back when, DaCosta took flawless photos and was among the frontrunners in the reality modelling series (she eventually placed second) but had a snappish attitude.
I still remember that moment like it was just yesterday when 32-year-old DaCosta, who was 21 then, had to act out a commercial promoting a Japanese pickled fruit. After saying her lines, she consumed the product only to spit it out later, to the judges’ horror.
Unfortunately, that unsavoury moment (no pun intended) may have tainted my judgment when I first saw DaCosta in the role of Whitney Houston in the made-for-TV biopic, Whitney.
The film opens with Whitney stepping onto the red carpet at the Soul Train Awards in 1989 where she first met and fell in love with R&B singer Bobby Brown (Arlen Escarpeta).
There’s a lot of air kissing, hands flailing in the air, and that signature megawatt smile, done the way Whitney would, yet I couldn’t buy into her performance of the legendary singer.
Her mannerisms and emotional reactions feel exaggerated; viewers can tell she is acting instead of being Whitney.
Another thing that throws me off is DaCosta’s speaking voice, which is noticeably higher pitched and squeakier than Whitney’s.
But all that changes – yes, even that pickled fruit-spitting image I had of DaCosta went out the window – when she takes the mic and belts out The Greatest Love Of All at the award show. Well, technically, DaCosta lip-syncs to re-recordings of Whitney’s songs, performed by Canadian singer Deborah Cox.
DaCosta transforms into the spitting image of Whitney when she takes the stage. Not only does she get Whitney’s gestures down pat as she sings, she also manages to embody her spirit, that unmistakable hunger and fire, while making sure every quiver of her lips corresponds to the recording.
Cox may not be able to match Whitney’s vocal prowess (realistically, no one could have), but she does share her deep, rich tones. This does enough to help tell the overall story of one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived.
Speaking of telling Whitney’s story, frankly, the film feels more like a romantic flick than a biography. Though it is set during the period when the Whitney-Bobby relationship was at its height and should therefore warrant considerable screen time, the film could have still shed more light on her motivations as a singer or her struggles as an African-American woman trying to break into the music and film industry at that time.
Still, credit must be given to first-time director Angela Bassett for not shying away from depictions of some of Whitney’s darkest moments. Scenes of the singer turning to drugs as a coping mechanism for her pain are shown amid the glitz and glamour of celebrity life.
These moments, as unflattering as they are, are precious to viewers. Whitney may be known as a chart-topping singer to some, a top-grossing actress to others, but ultimately, she is very much human.