By Cameron Lee
December 21, 2022
The biopic has always been a challenging medium to tell a story. Capturing the life of a human, especially one as decorated and troubled, as Whitney Elizabeth Houston, “The Voice” of a generation. The princess of pop music, who was also an actor, model and humanitarian, defied race, creed and class when she sang even one heavenly note from her countless Billboard-topping songs.
With this precursor, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Harriet) and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody), is a valiant effort. With a runtime of two hours and 26 minutes, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, started production in August 2021 with Naomi Ackie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Master of None) starring in the eponymous role.
Like many generational musical talents, the story begins in the church with Houston’s mother, Emily “Cissy” Houston, (Tamara Tunie), an accomplished gospel and R&B singer, training a young Whitney. Coming from a bloodline of talented singers like Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Leontyne Price, and close family friend, Aretha Franklin, Houston was destined for stardom.
Introduced early in the film is her relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who befriended Houston at the age of 16. Detailed in Crawford’s 2019 book, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, Houston had an ostracized early romantic connection with Crawford, which the film confirms. With a tumultuous relationship brewing between Houston’s mother and father (Clarke Peters), Crawford plays the role of a close confidant and conscientious voice for Houston throughout the film.
When famed record executive and producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) is brought to a nightclub to see Houston perform, her path to international acclaim commences. Recreating the iconic moment in 1983 when Houston signed her contract with Davis and Arista Records, a youthful and spright talent, played effortlessly by Ackie, had boundless potential. Though it must be truly difficult to portray the sheer beauty and raw ability of a young Whitney Houston, Ackie does a formidable job capturing her essence. Houston was also a teen model, and one of the first Black models to grace the cover of Seventeen, although much of her early adolescence is not portrayed in the film.
The first hair-raising musical moment comes from a scene where Houston and Davis are listening to demo tapes and the dance-pop song “How Will I Know” is played. Lemmons recreates the nostalgic and splashy music video with a young Houston effervescently dancing in the ‘80s-soaked visuals. While the voice of Houston and her numerous chart-topping songs are well represented in the film, the addition of Ackie’s voice is evident in many of the vocal performances. And while some of Houston’s most memorable musical moments were remade, like her Concert for a New South Africa, the 1994 American Music Awards performance, and the breathtaking rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV, they didn’t quite capture the raw emotion of the original performances. That is a testament to Houston’s talent more so than the lack of dexterity from Ackie, Lemmons or McCarten.
Much of the criticism of I Wanna Dance With Somebody will likely come from the lack of grit the film has when dealing with the complexities of Houston’s troubled life. While the latter half of her career is often looked at as tragic, the film does not dwell too long on her pitfalls and dark moments. The film is produced by Clive Davis, Pat Houston (Whitney’s sister-in-law), and approved by Houston’s estate. The lack of detail of the shadowy aspects of her life isn’t what hurts the film, it’s the execution. Many of the more kitschy junctures in the movie include Bobby Brown, played by Ashton Sanders (Moonlight), who portrays the brash New Jack Swing swagger of the character, but doesn’t quite deliver a striking performance in the film’s most dramatic moments.
Houston was a product of success, and many of her complications were rooted in wanting to escape: escaping the title of being a “princess,” as her father often calls her in the film; escaping the criticism she received for not being “Black” enough; or even the trappings of her gender fluidity and sexuality, as detailed in Bobby Brown’s 2016 memoir, Every Little Step: My Story.
Like many biopics that depict the rise and fall of iconic musical talents, individual performances are often most remembered. Believability is what leaves a lasting impression and, though the film is far from perfect, Ackie portrays Houston in a way that is plausible and carries the movie through its weaker moments. Bookended by stellar performances by Stanley Tucci (Clive Davis) and Nafessa Williams (Robyn Crawford), I Wanna Dance With Somebody, is a captivating chronicle of one of the quintessential voices of our lifetime.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody opens in theaters nationwide on December 23.