Review: ‘Bobby Brown Story’ packs telling highs, lows
Los Angeles — On a hot August day in Hollywood, Bobby Brown is giving “Bobby Brown” a lesson in how to have sex.
The singer is sitting next to actor Woody McClain, who plays Brown in BET’s “The Bobby Brown Story,” a two-part film that premiered Tuesday about the popular and infamous R&B bad boy known for both his string of monster hits — with his group New Edition and as a solo act — and his headline-grabbing offstage behavior, much of it linked to his stormy marriage to the late artist Whitney Houston.
McClain, who portrays a younger Brown in the project, recalled what it was like to channel Brown’s wildly sexual antics in concert that were so explicit Brown was once arrested for simulating sex on stage and violating a Columbus, Ga., “anti-lewdness” law in 1989. As the talk turned to the film’s numerous sex scenes, McClain told Brown how closely he had studied the singer’s raunchy mannerisms.
“I’m like, ‘Am I doing it right?’ ” McClain joked to Brown, referring to him affectionately as “Mom.”
“Naw, you gotta do it like this” Brown responded, bouncing to his feet. The 49-year-old began thrusting his hips and pumping his arms in a rapid-fire, simultaneous motion. “You gotta break that back!” He laughed as he sank back into the couch, and even the presence of a female reporter did not inhibit his rowdy behavior.
The singer gets a producer credit on the two-part movie, which intimately covers his roller-coaster life and career. The project follows the network’s successful 2017 miniseries “The New Edition Story,” about the seminal boy group that launched Brown.
BET hopes to repeat the success of that film — Parts 1 and 3 of the “The New Edition Story” were the network’s highest-rated and most-watched telecast in five years. The project also arrives 30 years after the release of “Don’t Be Cruel,” Brown’s massively popular album that ushered the hip-hop and R&B fusion sound called “new jack swing” into the mainstream and solidified his place as a successful solo artist.
“The Bobby Brown Story” begins with the singer’s dramatic exit from New Edition. It spans 30 years, following his solo career, marriage to Houston and the death of their daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, in 2015. It even touches on the 2005 Bravo reality show “Being Bobby Brown” and Houston’s infamous “crack is whack” interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002.
The stakes are high for Brown. The project comes on the heels of two documentaries released within a year of each other, “Whitney” and “Whitney: Can I Be Me,” which have thrust the couple’s tempestuous relationship back into the spotlight.
Despite Brown’s popularity, his career was largely overshadowed by Houston’s mega-stardom. He was vilified, publicly blamed for sullying Houston’s squeaky clean image by introducing her to hard drugs. Although Houston’s mother, Cissy, later disproved those claims in her 2013 memoir “Remembering Whitney,” the perceptions remain.
“I don’t want my kids to grow up and have to find a magazine, or videotape or watch a television program that speaks badly about their father,” Brown said, wearing a diamond encrusted gold chain with a picture of his late daughter. “I would rather just tell my kids and show my kids, ‘This is what Daddy did in his life. This is how it was back then in my life. Daddy’s not like that no more.’ ”
As producers on “The Bobby Brown Story,” Brown and his manager and wife, Alicia Etheredge-Brown, worked closely with executive producer Jesse Collins and Abdul Williams, who wrote the screenplay for “The New Edition Story.”
“We hope (viewers) walk away knowing Bobby in a more intimate way, and they can connect with him,” Etheredge-Brown said.
Williams also pulled details from Brown’s 2016 memoir, “Every Little Step,” in which the singer describes his life in graphic, often shocking, detail.
Some of those anecdotes — including the time a 10-year-old Brown accidentally cooked fried chicken with cocaine instead of flour or a sexual experience with a “ghost” as an adult — don’t appear on screen. But others, including his first encounter with Houston’s cocaine habit on their wedding day, are vividly depicted in the film.
Although Brown’s biopic explores the scars of his relationship with Houston – the drugs, the jail stints, the infidelity — he avoided discussing details about the couple’s struggles in “Whitney” interviews. (The Houston estate declined to comment.)
“I want people to remember her for her music, performances, her beauty,” Brown said in his interview with McClain promoting the film. “I believe if she was here, if she told her story, it’d be a whole different story.”
Moments later, he elaborated: “Why would I talk about her drug use in the documentary? I could talk about mine because mine is plain, cut, pure … but I would never downgrade that woman’s name at any time.”
He said he hasn’t watched the Houston documentaries. But he called “The Bobby Brown Story” his effort to regain control of the narrative by telling their story on his own terms.
It’s been hard for Brown to escape the shadows of his past. While promoting “The Bobby Brown Story” at the Television Critics Association press tour in late July, an otherwise smooth panel turned tense when a female reporter asked about past allegations of domestic abuse by Brown against Houston.
“There was no violent incidents between me and Whitney,” Brown said.
The reporter continued, referencing past 911 calls.
“You’re mistaken. You’re completely wrong,” Brown said, before announcing he would take only one more question.
But another reporter continued to press the issue, citing public reports of abuse and referencing a 911 call from 2003 that left Houston with a cut lip and bruises on her face. Brown ended the panel abruptly after the comment, saying, “The public record is wrong.”
Reflecting on that moment during his interview with McClain, Brown wished he had simply reminded journalists to watch the film to examine the relationship and that incident from his perspective.
“I was just pissed off,” Brown said, rising to his feet. “I was like, ‘Lady, I would come out there and choke the (expletive) out of you.’ ”
“But I don’t do that.”
After playing Brown in the New Edition miniseries, McClain reprised the role for “The Bobby Brown Story.” The actor had a similar mission for the part — to show a more compassionate, family-oriented side of Brown.
McClain said he knew little about Brown outside of what others told him before taking on the role. But in the process of filming, the 29-year-old spent considerable time hanging out with Brown.
“Bobby’s wild when he’s on stage,” McClain said. “When he’s with his family, he’s a whole different person. I really want people to see that.”
At one point, McClain reached over and grabbed Brown’s shoulder, giving him a playful shake. “This is a real human being right there,” he said. “When you see people on TV for some reason, people don’t think they’re real people.”
Watching Brown’s missteps play out in the public eye was tough, said veteran entertainment journalist Todd “Stereo” Williams.
“The thing that disappointed me is, it overshadowed anything he accomplished musically,” Williams said. “His musical legacy went into the peripheral.”
“The Bobby Brown Story” doesn’t sidestep Brown’s antics, but the film presents him as a flawed but sympathetic artist.
He is touring with members of New Edition — Ricky Bell, Michael Bivins and Ronnie DeVoe — as RBRM. Bell hopes people watching “The Bobby Brown Story” will move beyond Brown’s struggles to understand who he is as a person.
“If there’s other artists or other men struggling, they will be inspired and encouraged by his story,” Bell said.
Although Brown says he is eager to reverse the shadows that have plagued his career, he also has his own theories about how viewers may respond to “The Bobby Brown Story.”
“They’re going to say he was a crazy (expletive), but he is only Bobby,” Brown said. “I’m a better Bobby now than I was before so either accept me or not.”
‘The Bobby Brown Story’
9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday
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