'I Wanna Dance with Somebody' - Whitney Houston biopic's ups and downs

  • by Laura Moreno
  • Tuesday January 3, 2023
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Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' (photo: Sony Pictures)<br>
Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' (photo: Sony Pictures)

Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten, the film "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" strives to be a triumphant celebration of the very special person that was Whitney Houston. So many things about the film are wonderful, including a magnificent all-star cast, but ultimately it does not deliver.

With six Grammy Awards, sales of 170 million records, and a record-breaking seven consecutive #1 hit songs, Whitney Houston's voice was definitively one of the best voices ever recorded in music history.

But Whitney Houston was much more than that. She was an authentic person, a devoted Christian full of love, regal charm, beauty, and complexity. As a teen, she was already a top model and one of the very first Black cover girls. Her first film (without a single acting lesson) was "The Bodyguard" (1992), another phenomenal success. Her image as the first Black all-American girl, America's sweetheart, a modern update of a 1950s throwback, was crafted by the label, even if she felt, "That's not me."

Audiences cheer Whitney Houston's soul-stirring performances in the theater as if they were live, even when the pop music itself is not that musically interesting. Whitney Houston's voice simply captivates.

But fans are disappointed that a person of her stature deserved a bigger, better film than this, with a more beautiful lead actress, kind of a pre-requisite. Honestly, the film could have simply strung together her YouTube performances and done better.

But the first real indication that "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" would disappoint, is the amount of screen time allotted to Whitney Houston's producer, Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) with his '70s long-haired bald look. At one point, Davis even upsets Houston (Naomi Ackie) by dishonoring his own rule never to meddle in artists' personal lives. In retrospect, this kind of "help" very clearly did not help her.

The scene where Davis discovers Houston in the Sweetwater's Club in New York City is, however, brilliant. And his line, "You smoking is like leaving a Stradivarius in the rain," is memorable.

Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis and Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston in 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' (photo: Sony Pictures)  

Ironically, Clive Davis came out as bisexual in his 2013 memoir, but the film makes no mention of it, even as it discloses his religion (Jewish) and university (Harvard Law School).

It feels less than honest to tout Houston's one brief lesbian relationship as a teen while ignoring that many people in entertainment are LGBTQ. Whitney never felt compelled to come out since it really was not a part of her life anymore. I dare say, she probably counts as straight.

Today, Davis is Chief Creative Officer of Sony Music and a producer of this film. Davis personally recruited New Zealand native Anthony McCarten to write the film.

But straight screenwriter McCarten also wrote "Bohemian Rhapsody," which, despite its accolades, was criticized by gay fans and reviewers for its gloomy revisionism of Freddie Mercury's life. He does the same in Houston's story. McCarten is a great craftsman, but by his own admission, is not a musical guy. He said he doesn't get "breaking out into song," as he puts it, as if the very concept were slightly bonkers. He very clearly was not the right person to write this film.

But some scenes really sing, like Houston's historic singing of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. Whitney herself insisted that the Florida Orchestra play the anthem slowly and in 4/4 time, even though the Star-Spangled Banner is in 3/4 time, like a waltz. Changing the meter of the song makes it sound infinitely stronger, more firm-footed. That performance, at the start of the first Gulf War, really united and galvanized a reluctant public behind the war effort in a way that politicians can only dream about.

Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' (photo: Sony Pictures)  

Whitney & Robyn
For years, the tabloids spurred rumors of Houston being in a relationship with her best friend Robyn Crawford. At the time, the topic was scarcely on people's radar, raising the question of whether the record company already knew, and fed the story to the press. It would not be the first time The Network (the nickname of the particular mafia that firmly controlled the recording industry and its venues in the '60s and '70s, and perhaps still does) illegally spied on their artists in this country.

The film leads us to believe the affair was ongoing, when actually their physical relationship lasted just one summer when they first met.

The film omits that when she got her record deal, Whitney gave Robyn a blue Bible and told her they would have to stop their physical relationship because it would make their path more difficult and if anyone found out, it would be used against them. In the Bible they wrote "Unconditional Love" and signed their names under it. The best friends were allegedly never physical again.

Furthermore, Robyn writes that at age 16, Whitney told her how important their friendship was now so that later she would know she would know she could rely on her as they were touring the world together. And that's exactly what happened.

As her Creative Director, Robyn was instrumental in putting together costumes, keeping the ever-vicious press in perspective, and helping Whitney Houston achieve success every step of the way. This is not in the film either.

But the film does give us a real sense of the immense joy of their extraordinary friendship. Fearlessly onscreen at times without make up, British actress and BAFTA Award winner Naomi Ackie, and American actress-writer Nafessa Williams are superb in the role of best friends. Their chemistry onscreen feels real.

Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl in 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' (photo: Sony Pictures)  

Williams said that reading Robyn's memoir was the only way she could prepare for the role, and it changed how she hears Whitney's music now. "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," "We Almost Had It All" and other songs may be addressed to Robyn.

In the film "Whitney," Houston recalls that as a teen she'd just been thinking she didn't have any friends there at the new job "and then here comes Robyn with this beautiful, beautiful afro. She was tall and very statuesque and I was like, 'Wow, man.' She stood up for me. I remember thinking, I've known this person seems like all my life."

But Whitney's family could not accept their friendship, even though everyone knew Robyn always kept Whitney's interests in mind, and Robyn was the only one Whitney would listen to.
Robyn reports in her 2019 memoir, "A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston" that Whitney's mother, Cissy Houston, gospel singer and background vocalist for Elvis, told Whitney it wasn't natural for two women to be so close.

It seems this was a power struggle masquerading as homophobia. Years later, the family similarly rejected Bobbi Kristina's love of her life Nick Gordon, just as they had rejected Robyn.

Missed opportunity or cover-up?
The film ignores the pressing questions of Houston's death including allegations of murder. But it enters fraudulent territory with the penultimate scene of a tormented Whitney Houston, alone at the hotel, reaching for drugs. Omitted recollections state she was in good spirits at the hotel that night, talking by phone with Dionne Warwick and others. With this one scene, the film irresponsibly attempts to pin the blame on Whitney Houston herself for what happened to her, against the evidence.

This film was an opportunity to address earnest questions that won't go away. And there are so many questions. Nevertheless, at the premiere, Clive Davis told Entertainment Tonight that the film answers all the questions.

What is the point of making a film that obfuscates what happened on Feb. 11, 2012 to abruptly end Whitney Houston's vibrant life while Clive Davis went on with his pre-Grammy party downstairs in the very same hotel?

Sony Music was caught raising prices on Whitney Houston's music upon the news of her death, furthering the impression that they were not mourning their enormous loss at all, but responded to her death with cold calculation. They even released an apology that insulted the intelligence of the public, stating the price hike was an "internal mistake due to an employee error."

The film plays into the drug use narrative that hounded Houston in the media, but remained unproven as a cause of death. A key takeaway of the film: any drug use at all, even prescription painkillers, is a ticking time bomb. If nothing else, drug use makes it far too easy for others to come in and hijack the narrative.

Many people agree with what Bobby Brown told US Weekly: "I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney's life, Whitney would still be alive today."

'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' is playing at selected theaters through January 5.

Also watch the documentary, 'Whitney,' free on YouTube

'A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston' by Robyn Crawford, Dutton/Penguin-Random House $16. www.penguinrandomhouse.com

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