Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody - is a familiar tune
4 out of 5
There have been a few biographies or biopics (awful word) of famous music stars in the last few years, Freddie Mercury, Elvis, Elton John and all follow a template: up-and-coming artist is catapulting to stardom, dealing with personal and professional demons, battling drug addiction or alcoholism, and their eventual undoing. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody follows the same arc, but the riveting cinematic finesse and powerful performances are undeniable and unforgettable.
The film starts with Whitney ‘Nippy’ Houston (Naomi Ackie) singing in a church choir to be discovered by producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), after which she gains superstardom. After that, the narrative moves along smoothly and maintains an even pace till the end. Director Kasi Lemmons and screenwriter Anthony McCarten have focussed on the more (in)famous aspects of Whitney’s life — her relationship with her ‘best friend’ and creative director Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), criticism for being Whitney ‘Whitey’ Houston and a sellout, troubled marriage with (and divorce from) R&B star Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), being overworked, the fallout with her father, John Houston (Clarke Peters), drug addiction and rehab, hunger to get back on stage and sing again, and untimely and tragic death.
The film captures Whitney’s achievements as ‘The Voice’, who beat the Beatles and Elvis Presley and was the first Black white-friendly singer.
Anyone who doesn’t care for the drama and wants to watch a homage to one of the most influential performers with a big voice will revel in the recreation of her stage acts. Whitney’s soundtrack carefully curates some of her most iconic numbers, from ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody,’ It’s not right, but that’s okay,’ ‘And I will Always Love You,’ and ‘How will I Know’ among others. But the Super Bowl performance of the American National Anthem and ‘I’m Every Woman’ will give you goosebumps. The live-act recreations are super-electrifying and do perfect justice to the magic that Whitney was.
The biography also delves into what it meant to be a black woman in the 80s and the 90s — from her father, played marvellously by Clarke Peters, to her husband, Bobby Brown, trying to control her, constantly reminding her they are the men, misusing her wealth, and breaking her trust. Whitney poignantly tells her producer Clive that she’s a black woman and, therefore, always exhausted before embarking on a world tour after her father squanders all her money away.
One of the narrative through-lines that might have people Googling afterward is Whitney’s romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). They met as teens and became girlfriends, and when Whitney is veered toward relationships with men, Robyn sticks around as Whitney’s assistant and tries to steady her – especially with Brown in her life – to no avail. That aspect might have made a better focal point for a window-in-time story than the tragic take we got. One can't help but wonder if her inability to live authentically whether through pressure from her father or from her own religious beliefs played a part in her tortured life.
Naomi Ackie is marvellous as Houston. We hear bits of her voice but the main voice we hear is Whitney's. Ackie does get her mannerisms nailed and when not singing, inhabits Houston with a joy that is both innocent and infectious. Her performance makes this a 4 out of five and not a 3.
Whitney is enamouring, heartbreaking, glamorous and nostalgic all at once. Even if one is not a fan of the mezzo-Soprano, they can view the film for the drama and music.