I Wanna Dance with Somebody, A Film That Pleases The Houston Estate

I Wanna Dance with Somebody, A Film That Pleases The Houston Estate

The biographical musical film I Wanna Dance with Somebody is based on the life and career of American pop singer and actress Whitney Houston. This is not the first time that the story about the singer nicknamed “The Voice” has landed on the silver screen. Other cinematic enterprises tried to capture on film the life of the singer who managed to break the record held by The Beatles in consecutive number one singles. These include the 2015 telefilm Whitney directed by Angela Bassett, the 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me directed by Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal, as well as the 2018 documentary Whitney directed by Kevin Macdonald. But the biopic directed by Kasi Lemmons is the only one so far that won the praise of the Houston estate — which includes her sister-in-law and executor Pat Houston, the company that controls most of her musical rights, Primary Wave, and the man who made her the legend we know of today, Clive Davis. 

British actress Naomi Ackie plays Whitney Houston following her early days as a New Jersey choir girl who was trained by her mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) and was discovered by record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). The story continues with her father John Huston (Clarke Peters) acting as her manager and her covert girlfriend Robyn Crawford working as her creative director (Nafessa Williams).

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The film further portrays Whitney Houston’s turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) and their family life with their daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown (Bria Danielle Singleton). It is all intertwined with her most iconic career moments as an actress — for example with the film The Bodyguard — and her biggest hits as a singer, that include I Will Always Love You and of course the song that gives the title to the film, I Wanna Dance with Somebody.

Although director Kasi Lemmons joined forces with the creative team that brought the worldwide hit Bohemian Rhapsody to the screen — including screenwriter-producer Anthony McCarten — I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn’t have an inventive approach to the narrative. It comes across as a very didactic and cajoling reconstruction of Houston’s biography. Elvis (another music-star biopic that came out this year) had a more original way of unfolding the story, by handing the narration to the enigmatic Colonel Tom Parker who acted as Presley’s manager.

The new Whitney Houston film is nevertheless more audacious than its predecessors in exposing the issues in her life surrounding race: it shows how the singer was called “Oreo”, it recreates the infamous scene at the Soul Train Music Awards where she was booed, and it features a radio interview at a Black station in which the DJ accused her music of being “too white”. An additional element that seems to be bolder than previous cinematic representations of Whitney Houston’s life is her relationship with her best friend and business associate Robyn Crawford. I Wanna Dance with Somebody explicitly portrays their relationship as a physical and sentimental one, also based on Crawford’s memoir published in 2019 — although she had no involvement in the making of this film. In the Eighties the social stigma was strong when it came to public figures being homosexual; which is possibly why Houston chose to marry a man and become a mother, settling for a life that would please her public just as much as her parents.

Another fascinating character that jumps off the screen is Whitney Houston’s mentor, who befittingly defined her as “the greatest contemporary female musical artist of her time.” He comes across as the rightful father figure who allows her to take flight, but who is also  earnestly concerned about her health and well-being. The Netflix documentary, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack Of Our Lives, completes the picture of the 90 year old record executive, who played an integral role in the careers of luminaries like Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, and many others, putting Houston in the highest echelon. He rightly claims that Whitney Houston’s music continues to stay with us, which is the most riveting part of I Wanna Dance with Somebody. The films finds its peaks in the recreations of epochal performances, like her triumphalist rendering of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl and “The Impossible Medley” of I Loves You, Porgy, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going and I Have Nothing at the American Music Awards. The entire film features twenty-two Houston classics that were adapted for the state-of-the-art sound of cinemas. These remixes were matched with Naomi Ackie’s onscreen performance, who as a talented singer sung every note (that was not recorded), recreating in detail the expressions, pauses, breaths, giggles and gestures of Whitney Houston. Music editor John Warhurst produced the greatest magic of the film allowing Whitney Houston’s voice to be channelled by Ackie’s reenactment, amplifying and magnifying the original records of the best-selling American singer.

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Whitney Houston has received many outstanding awards, she set numerous charts, her sales amounted to over 200 million records worldwide and several of her singles certified as Diamond. Despite Kasi Lemmons’ obsolete storytelling, we are reminded of how music ran through Whitney Houston’s veins and around her: her mother was Cissy Houston, her aunt was Dionne Warwick and her godmother was Aretha Franklin.

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Therefore, while watching I Wanna Dance with Somebody, when audiences listen to Whitney Houston’s voice it’s impossible not to feel shivers running down their spines.

Final Grade: B

Check out more of Chiara’s articles.

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