To expand upon my quick thoughts in the video, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a semibiographical musical film directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) from a screenplay written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody). Featuring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, and Clarke Peters; the film is based on the life of American pop singer, icon, and actress Whitney Houston.
At the 1994 American Music Awards Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) looks at her family in the crowd before she begins to sing. In 1983 a teenage Whitney is singing a solo at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey. She adds several flourishes to the song catching the attention of her mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) who is also the choir director. After church Cissy makes Whitney rehearse the song over and over stating she can only add flourishes once she truly knows the music. When Whitney threatens to quit, Cissy reminds her she chose to do this and that she will see it through to the end.
While listening to music in the park Whitney meets Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), a college student handing out pamphlets. After talking for a bit Whitney invites Robyn to hear her sing backup for her mother at a New York City nightclub. The two form a strong bond eventually becoming close friends and starting a relationship. Whitney eventually moves out of her parent’s house and moves in with Robyn shortly after. One night before doing a set Cissy notices the founder and president of Arista Records Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) is in the audience and fakes losing her voice so that Whitney can start the show. Clive is blown away by Whitney’s voice and offers to sign her to a record deal.
Whitney Houston is a cultural icon. Nicknamed “The Voice”, she is one of the bestselling music artists of all time, with sales of over 200 million records worldwide, and the best singer of her generation. I remember hearing my mom blasting her music as a kid and falling in love with her wide-ranging vocality. My favorite song by her is “When You Believe,” a song she performed with Mariah Carey for the 1998 animated masterpiece, The Prince of Egypt. Whitney was also a pretty decent actor appearing in box-office hits such as The Bodyguard (1992), Waiting to Exhale (1995), and The Preacher’s Wife (1996). The multi-talented star was loved by the world and it was only a matter of time until her story got the theatrical treatment.
My bar for Black female singer biopics starts with the 1993 classic, What’s Love Got to Do with It, and goes down from there. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn’t quite reach those heights, but Kasi Lemmons handles the material well. She pulls emotional performances out of all the actors, even those with smaller roles. The start of the feature is a bit choppy and feels like it has two openings. The scene at the AMA’s could have been cut out since the film returns to that point at the end leaving the starting point as Whitney singing in her church’s choir. Cissy Houston is noticeably missing from a lot of the film with no explanation as to why with her only popping in when her daughter is in distress. While Whitney’s relationship with her parents does seem strained at times, she seemed to be on good terms with her mother as she is ultimately the one who makes sure she goes to rehab.
Naomi Ackie embodies Whitney on every level and is the highlight of the film. Her performance and cadence almost make you think Whitney is on the screen. She talks like Whitney, walks like Whitney, and even sings like Whitney. This in itself is an accomplishment and a true signifier of her acting prowess. Though they don’t look that much alike the hair and make-up departments do a good job of making Ackie look more like the pop star as the film progresses.
Another focus of the film is Whitney’s relationship with her best friend and creative director Robyn Crawford. Their sexual relationship was not an openly known fact until Crawford published her book A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston in 2019. While most of her family knew, they implored her to keep it a secret and start openly dating young men so that the public does not catch wind of it. If so the damage to her career as America’s princess would be irreparable. As Whitney began seeing other men their relationship fizzled out though they remained close friends.
Of course, the film takes every chance it can to explore Whitney’s impressive musical catalog. We find out that while Whitney was a phenomenal singer, she didn’t write any of her hit records. Clive brought all the music to her and she chose whatever sounded good to her. Due to this, she did not make much money off of her music which made it harder for her to get out of financial trouble. Still, her vocal range was impressive with many of her songs being leagues better than the original versions. The film also doesn’t shy away from Whitney’s drug use and her tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). Brown got a lot of flack for introducing Whitney to drugs, but the film clearly shows she was into drugs before she met him. (Although his infidelity and verbal abuse didn’t help)
Naomi Ackie’s performance and Whitney Houston’s vast musical catalog make this film a great watch. Audiences are given a peek into the private life of one of the most influential singers that ever lived and not just a beat-by-beat walkthrough of her greatest hits. I give Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody a Decent 8.1/10. I do wish we got to explore more of Whitney’s acting exploits beyond The Bodyguard, but that’s just my opinion.