Creating a biopic about one of history’s most remarkable musical icons is no easy feat, but WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY succeeds in honoring the legendary vocalist. A so-so trailer didn’t inspire much hope, but the film is a solid and respectful portrayal of her life.
Naomi Ackie is a superb choice to portray Houston. While her singing voice is only sparingly sprinkled here and there throughout the film (the rest are recordings of Whitney herself), her ability to capture the essence and energy of Houston is magnificent, particularly while recreating her most famous performances. Ackie’s transition from a young, starry-eyed pop star to a more mature yet heartbroken musical icon is seamless, utilizing every tool the script gives her to strengthen and justify her choices. In this performance, her Houston is neither blamed nor completely innocent for the life she lived—she is respected and portrayed with honesty. Her thousand-watt smile and absolute commitment to the role deserve recognition.
Director Kasi Lemmons (HARRIET, BLACK NATIVITY) has applied the best points of recent biopics while maintaining her own artistic integrity. The story of Whitney Houston is handled with delicacy, and obvious care, yet does not shy away from the struggles of her personal life. A most effective tool is that rather than vulgarly portraying scenes of substance abuse or domestic violence, Lemmons chooses to place her focus on the effects they have on Whitney and those around her—showing us, not telling us. The film’s arc leads to an inevitably tragic climax, yet we are reminded just how remarkable Whitney Houston was and how impossibly unique her legendary status remains to be to this day.
Credit for this also belongs to screenwriter Anthony McCarten who truly surprises with how much focus was placed on Whitney’s relationship with best friend/lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, excellent). Taking a note from the controversy related to his screenplay for BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, claiming it made Queen’s story too digestible for heterosexual audiences and shied away from Freddy Mercury’s queerness, the connection Whitney had with Robyn only makes her story all the more tragic.
The film excels in hinting at the life that could—nay, should—have been for Houston. There are no holds barred in expressing her frustration in the media labeling her as not black enough or too musically white. The control and micromanaging over every detail of her career is tragic to see and one must wonder if Houston were to rise to stardom today, would the modern social setting perhaps have allowed her to be what she truly was—a queer black woman with “The best Voice of her generation?”
While I adored WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY, I’m not certain what the general consensus of audience members will be. The audience at the 2:00 PM matinee I saw gave the film a standing ovation as the credits began to roll. If not for the film, then certainly for Houston and her legacy. My applause was for both.
It’s available in theatres.