Saturday night TV One debuted its highly-publicized dramatization on the life and times of Bobby DeBarge. The two-hour production, directed by Russ Parr, followed the musical savant’s perilous relationship with his art and vices, finishing with his untimely death in 1995. What could have been an exceptional commentary about childhood trauma and its affects on adulthood, turned out being a woefully boring and music-less episode of Empire.
As the eldest sibling of the DeBarge family, Bobby would breakout as a musical savant, singing lead for the 70s R&B band Switch. This success helped pave way for his younger siblings to form Motown’s second famous family. Despite the fame, Bobby could not escape his demons. A tragic upbringing set in motion events that would lead Bobby, and most of his siblings, down a destructive path.
The film’s biggest flaw is its narration method. Instead of starting the story from the beginning, viewers are told of Bobby (played by Roshon Fegan) and his familial struggles through flashbacks. After opening with Bobby ailing on his deathbed, we’re transported to happier times of Bobby performing with Switch. This is only the first of TWO musical numbers in the entire film.
As the performance wraps, we witness the behind-the-scenes tension between Bobby, management and the rest of the band members. Within 20 minutes of a 120-min production, we’re already at the “Ain’t nobody coming to see you Otis” portion. Stage play-level writing is delivered poorly by singer Lloyd Polite as Switch creator Gregory Williams. The only thing staler than the screenplay is the wigs selection.
Fegan is loud and belligerent as Bobby, delivering his lines as if he’s in a different film than everybody else. What is most upsetting is we aren’t given proper backstory as to why Bobby is so angry. The DeBarges’ tragic upbringing, escape to stardom and inevitable downfall is heavily documented and would make for amazing television. Unfortunately we’re shortchanged with a quick flashback alluding to abuse at the hands of their father, establishing him as the villain to the hero of their church-going black mother. It isn’t enough to sustain an entire film.
Along with the poor narrative choices, the casting is abysmally laughable. Two random women are touted as LaToya and Janet Jackson, while their brother Jermaine is only identifiable by the slight curl of his jheri hairstyle. The most egregious mistake is Antwan “Big Boi” Patton of OutKast and ATL fame cosplaying as Motown founder Berry Gordy.
After checking completely out after the first hour, I managed to catch Bobby’s arrest for drug use, a violent prison fight and an abrupt diagnosis of HIV that ignores Bobby’s alleged homosexuality. The movie was too flawed to find comical, and too boring to entertain.
The DeBarge story is one of American tragedy, unique in its approach to race, fame and trauma. Telling their complete story not only highlights Black excellence; but, it encompasses a human experience shared by so many today. The film could have been the help a victim of sexual abuse or drug misuse needed in healing. A real opportunity to achieve more than just a movie was missed by all involved. Hopefully someday, for Bobby’s sake, the story is told honestly and in proper care.