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Among the many winning qualities of Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is that unlike most musical biopics, which tend to hurtle through frustrating fragments of the hits that leave you wanting more, this one serves up many generous performance interludes. It’s fitting that in a portrait of the woman considered the greatest voice of her generation, we hear that voice in all its full-throated glory. The power, self-possession, the joy and even spiritual wealth in every vocal probably has a lot to do with this feeling less like a tragic rise-and-fall saga than a celebration of an enduring icon to whom fame wasn’t always kind.
That doesn’t mean that Lemmons and screenwriter Anthony McCarten — cornering the market in the musical bio-drama after Bohemian Rhapsody and the Neil Diamond Broadway jukebox assembly A Beautiful Noise — gloss over Houston’s fall from grace or the demons that plagued her throughout her years in the spotlight. That’s all here. But the highs and lows are built on a firm foundation of respect that will warm the heart of any devoted fan — this one included.
The other major asset here is Naomi Ackie’s heartfelt, emotionally raw performance in the title role. While she doesn’t bear close resemblance to Houston, she captures the late singer’s radiance, whether commanding a stage or just kicking back away from the spotlight. The British actress deftly removes the distance separating the troubled star from the audience. She accesses the unpretentious Everywoman — in both the Chaka Khan cover sense and the sense of a relatable Jersey girl who made the necessary adjustments to live with global fame despite never being entirely comfortable with it.
The decision to stick almost exclusively with expertly remastered versions of Houston’s original vocal tracks was absolutely the right one. Ackie by all accounts is a capable singer; she can be heard briefly in choir practice at the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark with Houston’s hard taskmaster mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie, fabulous); performing backup in her mother’s act at Sweetwater’s in New York City; and singing solo at the same club in the nervous opening bars of “The Greatest Love of All,” when Cissy makes the savvy move to shove her daughter out onstage alone after she spots Arista Records president Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) in the audience.
Both Ackie and the music production team make the transition into Houston’s roof-raising vocal seamless as she swiftly finds her confidence. The lip-syncing throughout is impeccable, but there’s no doubt that Ackie is singing underneath the dubs — she lives and breathes every song.
The thing is, you can’t do a Whitney Houston bio-drama without Whitney Houston’s voice. Nobody can match her expressiveness, her lung power, her seemingly effortless modulation and mountain-climbing key changes when she was at her peak. There’s a contagious vitality in her dance hits — I swear, I struggled not to leap out of my seat when a smash cut jumps into “How Will I Know” — and soul-stirring feeling in her ballads.
Andrew Dosunmu’s lightly fictionalized bio for Netflix, Beauty, which was scripted by Lena Waithe, had many admirable qualities, particularly in its candor about the star’s sexuality. But the bold gambit to make a film in which everyone keeps raving about an extraordinary singing voice that we never get to hear left a gaping hole in the portrait.
The extent to which this film exults in the phenomenal talent even while tracing the personal tragedy makes it easy to live with the conventional constraints of McCarten’s script, which doesn’t escape the familiar “and then this happened” Wiki-page structure. But it’s two music choices, in particular, that give I Wanna Dance With Somebody its satisfying narrative shape.
One is the 1983 television appearance on The Merv Griffin Show on which Davis introduced Houston to national audiences, singing “Home” from The Wiz, before her debut album was even recorded. It sets up the theme of yearning for the anchoring stability of love, family and belonging that would continue to slip from her grasp as her fame escalated.
The other is the framing device of an unforgettable performance at the 1993 American Music Awards, on which Houston sang what’s known as “The Impossible Medley.” It comprises three songs, any one of which would be challenge enough alone for many accomplished vocalists — “I Loves You, Porgy,” from Porgy and Bess; “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” from Dreamgirls; and Houston’s own hit ballad from that year, “I Have Nothing.”
With steadily amplified sorrow in the final scenes, Lemmons observes Houston’s anxious state as she prepares to perform, against the advice of her team, at Davis’ 2012 pre-Grammys party. But the director makes the restrained choice to cut away from the descent of the singer’s final hours to the AMA performance, recreated in its entirety, which allows the film to close on a triumphant high rather than on the desolation of a blazing light extinguished.
That loving gesture doesn’t lessen the authenticity with which the film depicts Houston’s struggles with drugs; her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown (Moonlight discovery Ashton Sanders), who ignored the signs of debilitating fatigue and encouraged her to keep touring; the betrayal of her father, John (Clarke Peters), who mismanaged her business and then sued for $100 million when she took away his control; and the backlash over her music being “not Black enough.”
Perhaps the most poignant thread is the spontaneous blossoming of her early relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), depicting Houston’s relatively uncomplicated acceptance of her sexuality, which was gradually overpowered by the homophobic disapproval of her family and by pressure to present a wholesome “girl next door” image at the start of her career. Robyn rolling her eyes at Whitney’s music-video makeover — swapping jeans, sweatshirt and short hair for minidresses, Barbie makeup and flouncy curls — is a sweet moment.
Their early scenes together, beautifully played by Ackie and Williams, are breezy, relaxed and sexy, with a shorthand between them that conveys what a grounding influence Crawford might have remained had the romance not been suppressed.
Crawford stayed a trusted friend until co-existence with Brown in Houston’s life became impossible; the resulting split is heartbreaking, given that Robyn appears to have been the most consistent figure always looking out for Whitney’s best interests.
Houston’s parents are depicted as the main force behind Crawford’s marginalization, with Davis making a point to stay out of his artists’ private lives. (There may be some exoneration involved here, given that he’s a producer.) Re-examined from a contemporary perspective — now that more queer celebrities feel the freedom to come out — it’s a sad irony that all this happened under Davis’ watch. The record company exec’s own late-in-life emergence as a gay man is handled with a pleasing light touch in Tucci’s warmly avuncular performance.
McCarten and Lemmons are careful not to portray Houston in blunt terms of victimhood. Her decision to marry Brown is shown as very much her own, driven partly by the desire to start a family, while her drug use started well before her marriage. The filmmakers make the admirable choice to stay away from the trainwreck spectacle of Bravo’s Being Bobby Brown, arguably the nadir of celebrity reality television, which turned Houston at one of her lowest points into a cruel pop-culture punchline.
Most of the events here — pertaining both to the downside and to the success of Houston’s string of consecutive No. 1 hits and history-making album sales — will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Kevin Macdonald’s excellent 2018 doc, Whitney.
Where Lemmons’ film is more illuminating is in showing how much Houston’s own instincts about what was right for her voice were instrumental in her ascent. It’s that instinct that informs her unapologetic response when an interviewer brings up the “too white” criticism leveled by Black radio networks. While she didn’t write her own songs, she clearly had a great ear for what worked for her, notably in her anthemic reinvention of Dolly Parton’s delicate “I Will Always Love You” as a rapturous power ballad for the soundtrack of The Bodyguard.
Attention to Houston’s film career is pretty much limited to that 1992 screen debut, with some crafty intercutting of a frame or two of Kevin Costner during the shoot. But nothing feels shortchanged. There’s an emotional amplitude to this retelling of Houston’s life that gives us soaring participation in her crowning at 23 as America’s pop princess and crushing investment in the pathos of her years of struggle, as drugs, exhaustion and the pressure to “be everything to everyone” took their toll.
Critics will sniff, as they invariably do, about the familiar conventions of the music biopic. But the spirit of I Wanna Dance With Somebody transcends those conventions far more often than it gets weighed down by them. Anyone who loves Whitney Houston and her music will leave the film with that love reinforced — especially anyone who sees it in a theater with a wall-shaking sound system.
Production companies: Muse of Fire, Primary Wave Music, West Madison
Cast: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters, Ashton Sanders
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Producers: Denis O’Sullivan, Jeff Kalligheri, Anthony McCarten, Pat Houston, Clive Davis, Larry Mestel, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Matt Jackson, Christina Papagjika, Matthew Salloway
Executive producers: Naomi Ackie, Kasi Lemmons, William Earon, Marina Cappi, Erika Hampson, Josh Crook, Rachel Smith, Seth Spector, Dennis Casali, Janice Beard, Tanner Beard, Lexie Beard, Matthew Gallagher, Jane Bergere, Stella Meghie, Mackenzie O’Connell
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Gerald Sullivan
Costume designer: Charlese Antoinette Jones
Music: Chanda Dancy
Editor: Daysha Broadway
Visual effects supervisor: Paul Norris
Executive music producer: Rodney Jenkins
Music supervisor: Maureen Crowe
Casting: Kim Coleman
Rated PG-13, 2 hours 24 minutes
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