Film Review: Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance with Somebody ★★★1/2

My head is swimming with Whitney Houston’s incredible back catalogue, and I’m floating on a bittersweet nostalgic cloud, as I step back out on to the streets of New York after a morning screening of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. I have that post-concert buzz and feel like I’ve just witnessed a soulful tribute act; a lovingly-crafted and rather intimate celebration of the life of the tragically gone-too-soon star. Although it might paint in broad strokes at times, the film is grounded and deepened by its strong performances and excellent direction, and it has one helluva soundtrack.

As the film opens, we meet Whitney (portrayed by a fantastic Naomi Ackie) at what was perhaps the pinnacle of the artist’s career and the height of her vocal talent, as she’s about to perform an ambitious medley at the American Music Awards in 1994. Director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) and her Oscar-nominated cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) place us right on stage with the singer, with handheld shots and fast editing by Daysha Broadway, that capture all the tension and the anticipation of a live performance.

We’re then taken back a decade to Whitney receiving rather stern vocal instruction in a New Jersey church—where she’s sung since she was a child—from her Grammy-winning soul and gospel singing mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie, striking the perfect balance between steeliness and adoration). With music running through her veins, Whitney has long haboured dreams of becoming a professional singer and Cissy is determined that her daughter’s gifts and ambition won’t go to waste, hence her tough but never cruel guidance, pushing her to perfection.

Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in Tristar pictures I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Early on in the film, before fame arrives in her life, we see Whitney’s first mutually flirtatious encounter with Robyn Crawford (a kinetic and captivating Nafessa Williams), who would become her girlfriend, later her assistant and creative manager, and remain a lifelong best friend. She’s there by her side throughout it all, until she’s progressively pushed away after Whitney marries. Lemmons imbues the scenes of domestic bliss between Whitney and Robyn with an endearing sense of innocence, and a carefree playfulness. They’re able to be totally themselves away from judgmental eyes, the love between them palpable. There’s an easy chemistry between Ackie and Williams, and it’s a joy to watch them share the screen. Whitney’s Catholic school education and Baptist upbringing, along with her father’s disapproval and the pressures of a heteronormative entertainment industry, all seem to be factors in the shift of their relationship from romantic to platonic, but the love remains.

The depth of Whitney’s touching bond with Robyn isn’t something that’s merely hinted at or feels tacked on, but is given equal weight to other significant relationships in her life, including with her mother and domineering father John (a commanding Clarke Peters); record label executive and mentor Clive Davis (a reliably marvelous Stanley Tucci), and her tumultuous marriage to Bobby Brown (Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders bringing an edgy, unpredictable volatility and a touch of menace to the role). We get enough of a sense of their marriage—with its echoes of the arguments that a young Whitney and her brothers overheard their parents having—without the 2005 reality series, Being Bobby Brown, being referenced.

Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford and Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston Tristar pictures I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

We also see her as an adoring, if imperfect mother to Bobbi Kristina (played by Bailee Lopes as a child and then Bria Danielle Singleton as a teenager), as Whitney’s struggle with drug and alcohol use increasingly threatens to derail her career. The film also touches on the intense scrutiny the singer faced from an intrusive press in a pre-social media era of feverish coverage of celebrities’ private lives, as well as the criticism that she faced from some who perceived that her music and image weren’t Black enough, along with accusations of selling out. The film doesn’t ignore these low points in her life, but it doesn’t dwell on them or sensationalize. There is perhaps a darker, more raw movie to be made of Whitney’s life, but that’s not the vibe of I Wanna Dance.

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose play The Collaboration about Warhol and Basquiat is currently on Broadway, wants to show us how this particular star was born, and it’s satisfying to see all the pieces come together, shaping the incredible success that she became. As he demonstrated with his screenplay for Bohemian Rhapsody, he has a skill for humanizing stars, bringing details in their lives and those close to them, down to a scale that we can all relate to and finds the private moments in the public. Like the rush of excitement that Robyn feels when she hears one of Whintey’s songs being played for the first time on the radio in the couple’s bedroom. Similarly, we see Cissy proudly watch Whitney singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl on television from her couch at home, immobilized with a broken leg. A sequence reminiscent of Mercury’s parents watching Queen’s Live Aid performance from their living room.

Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis and Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in Tristar pictures I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

Davis, who is one of the film’s executive producers, became a confidant to the singer and was a major source for McCarten’s script. It’s a lot of fun being in the room with Whitney and Davis as he plays her the demos of her future 80s hits—including the record-breaking seven consecutive number ones she would go on to have—and later, a blast of Dolly Parton’s version of I Will Always Love You on the set of The Bodyguard. She gets really fired up when she first hears It’s Not Right but It’s Okay, getting Davis to play it on a loop in a scene that has some of the same excitement of Queen creating their operatic rock anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody” in that movie. The recreation of her video for How Will I know provides a fun thrill too, with Robyn on set questioning that silver scarf tied into an oversized bow in Whitney’s hair, as her 80s pop star image takes shape. There’s fine work on display here from costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones, and hair and makeup by Brian Badie and Tisa Howard, helping Ackie to transform into Houston and recreate her iconic looks, as well as evocative production design by Gerald Sullivan.

Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in Tristar pictures I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

The figure we meet in I Wanna Dance with Somebody feels a lot like the Whitney that’s presented in Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal’s 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me, and we hear the singer say a version of that phrase twice in the film; reacting against her controlling father and the pressures of the industry to present herself a certain way. In 2009, when she’s about to appear on Oprah, and her mother is trying to build her up before she goes in front of the cameras, reminding her that she’s a “princess” in her eyes, Whitney replies, “I’m just going to be me”. While in an earlier scene she declines to select a dress from a rack of dazzling sequin covered numbers saying, “can I just be me for once?” Going on to perform at the Super Bowl looking stunning in a simple white tracksuit. The intensely patriotic sequence that accompanies the national anthem captures a sense of her singing bringing the country together, but it all feels little too much. There’s a similar excess to the scene of Whitney performing on stage in South Africa in 1994, with the crowd waving sparklers, fireworks exploding, her dress sparkling, and of course her voice soaring. But in that scene at least, it’s all a bit much in a good way.

As Whitney becomes more wealthy, the on screen glitz and glamor is dialed up—the tone is big, bold, and beautiful—but Lemmons gets to the emotional truth of every scene. There’s never a false note in Naomi Ackie’s performance, which has seen her make the BAFTA Leading Actress longlist (she’s already a BAFTA-winner for her work in the series The End of the F***ing World); it feels effortless, avoiding any sense of imitation, she fully inhabits the role. When it comes to Whitney’s live shows, it’s the real Whitney that we hear and the songs frequently play out in full, like her first TV appearance on The Merv Griffin Show in 1983. Throughout these long takes, Ackie really sells it, as she lip syncs for her life, capturing Whitney’s on-stage presence, passion, and spirit.

Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in Tristar pictures I Wanna Dance With Somebody.

As 2012 ominously arrives, McCarten again pulls back from sensationalizing. We all know what’s coming. Instead he lingers on an encounter with her fans asking for autographs, including one (Luke Crory) who we met years before in the film, symbolizing those who’ve stood by her throughout her career. One of my favourite scenes, is a delicate and unassuming one, that sees Whitney sitting alone at the hotel bar being served by a Black queer fan, Spencer (Elegance Bratton, who brings the same sensitivity and emotional honesty to this brief acting appearance that he brought to his narrative feature debut as writer-director, The Inspection). He shares his memory of getting to see Whintey live in the 90s as a seat-filler, a performance that always stayed with him. With far more economy than 2019’s Judy, the sequence captures the impact Whitney had on her queer fans and their love for her.

Unlike Madonna, who is in pre-production on a movie version of her life that she’s writing and directing, Whitney of course is no longer here to tell her own story, but I Wanna Dance With Somebody places her, rather than other people’s perspectives, right at the centre of the film in a way that feels like she’s reclaiming her own narrative, regaining the dignity taken from her by press headlines, including the coverage of her death. The beating heart of the film is Whitney’s voice—”The Voice”—as it rightly celebrates her as one of the world’s greatest vocal talents in popular culture. So see it on the big screen with a great sound system if you can (22 tracks have been specially remixed for the theatrical experience). As the end credits rolled, with photographs of the real Whitney in scenarios we’d just seen recreated, despite the urging of her haunting vocals on Don’t Cry For Me, I have to admit, I got so emotional, baby.

By James Kleinmann

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is currently playing in US theaters. Find local showtimes on the film’s official website.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody – Official Trailer #2 (HD)

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