The boundaries between an artist’s life story and ornate tombstone shatter in the moving Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody by director Kasi Lemmons. Written by Anthony McCarten, it begins in 1983 in a New Jersey church where a young Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) is being taught the finer points of singing by her famous mother, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie).
While hanging out, she meets Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), and sparks start flying. Always headstrong, young Whitney defies her parents by moving out of their house and moving in with Robyn. Her talent gets the attention of Arista Records executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who signs her. Whitney’s father, John (Clarke Peters), becomes her business manager and takes control of her public image. Not only does John disapprove of her daughter’s romance with Robyn, but he also starts forcing Whitney to date men in public. While her star rises, Whitney has pulled further apart from Robyn, as their love would be poison to her place on the charts. She also faces backlash from black radio DJs who accuse her of selling out to white audiences. As pressure mounts, Whitney eventually gets married to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and her drug use skyrockets. Soon Whitney’s bright stardom starts burning down everything around her…
I Wanna Dance With Somebody fulfills the first challenge of a music biopic by getting folks who aren’t already fans interested anyway. I didn’t give a s**t about Ray Charles or Mozart before I saw their biopics. Same with Houston, who was omnipresent on the radio while I was in High School in a way I didn’t appreciate, as her pop was nudging my beloved New Wave off the air. This film won me over by showing all the pressures the ultra-successful Houston had to fight against coming up. She has pressure from her mother to live up to her high vocal standards. She has pressure from her father to keep generating money. She has pressure to deny her sexuality by a queer-hostile world and pressure from her own community over her wide appeal.
“Not only does John disapprove of her daughter’s romance with Robyn, but he also starts forcing Whitney to date men in public.”
Ackie puts in a magnificent performance as Houston, making her feisty with a big f*****g F. Ackie fully gives us the anger and the pain that was the price paid for the artist’s spine of iron. Her performance is triumph and tragedy, simultaneously firing across all pistons. While there is wonderful supporting acting work here, this is Ackie’s show, and she earns it. The performances by Williams and Tucci as her support system provide the perfect counterbalance to Tunie and Peters’ excellent work as her dysfunctional parents. The musical performances space the full songs out across the movie to major points, keeping the drama from being upstaged. Ackie shines in the song sequences too. The Houston fans will not be disappointed.
As this is an authorized biopic with Clive Davis and Pat Houston producing, I expected I Wanna Dance With Somebody to present Houston in a positive light. As the producers wish to preserve and enshrine Houston’s legacy, the focus here is on Houston’s talent and achievements instead of the more sordid matter. I commend it for being brave enough to present her Lesbianism and how destructive it was to have her hide it. However, the depiction of her drug addiction is so fleeting that I feel it does the film a disservice. There are less than a handful of scenes of her using, and they are as brief as brief can be.
I get that Lemmons and company didn’t want to resurrect the tabloid “Hey Bob-Beeee!” image of Houston during her most visible downward spiral. However, by sweeping the gory details of her habit under the rug, the film underplays how hard drugs destroy talent and the lives of loved ones. The film even reinforces Houston’s infamous “crack is whack” denial by portraying her as smoking a sprinkle of powder cocaine out of a spoon while using a full-blown glass stem. To try to claim it is more elegant to smoke cocaine as a powder instead of rock form is bullshit. Freebase is freebase. Leaving crack out of Whitney Houston’s biopic is like making the Orson Welles story without ever showing him overweight. I wanted to see Ackie bug-eyed, lips foaming and picking paint chips out of the rug, just to enforce that hard drugs can destroy anyone, no matter how talented. By reducing the impact of addiction by wearing sunglasses indoors and singing badly for Scandinavians, all cautionary benefits of Houston’s tragedy are lost in the stage lights. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a worthy effort with just a coat too much whitewash.