Editor’s note: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, released Dec. 23, is now playing at the newly reopened AMC Evanston 12 theater, 1715 Maple Ave.
If you love Whitney Houston, arguably the most-gifted female singer in history, you’ll love this movie. About 98% of the vocals you hear are 100% Houston, her unmistakable, silvery, five-octave voice.
One could say, Whitney Houston is the star of this film, played to Oscar-precision by Naomi Ackie (The End of the F***ing World, television series, 2019). This film cries out for the immersive experience of Dolby Sound and Cinema.
The great Stanley Tucci (The Lovely Bones, 2009) plays Clive Davis, Whitney’s friend, mentor and only record producer. Toni-award winner Tamar Tunie (Flight, 2012) delivers an outstanding performance as Houston’s mother, Cissy Houston.
While performing a gig at New York’s Sweetwater Club, Houston’s mother is the star of the show and sees Clive Davis in the audience.
Her mother feigns voice-exhaustion and pushes a bewildered Houston front stage to perform a solo rendition of George Benson’s ballad, “Greatest Love of All.”
Davis immediately recognizes the 19 year-old’s phenomenal talent and signs Houston to Arista Records, where she becomes one of the biggest-selling artists in music history, topping 200 million records world-wide.
Houston cruises into stardom, having been raised on gospel music and mentored by an aristocracy of successful, talented women: Cissy Houston, her mother; Dionne and DeeDee Warwick, her cousins, and operatic great, soprano Leontyne Price, another cousin. Aretha Franklin, who is also with Arista records, is a close family friend!
But all these women are traditionalists, grounded in their gospel upbringing. Houston is a student of their talent and theater but does not buy into their traditionalism.
Early in the film we are introduced to free-spirit Houston when she meets her decades long companion, and lover Robyn Crawford, convincingly played by Nafessa Williams (Black Lightning, series 2017-2021).
Crawford and Houston click instantly and by all accounts are young lovers during Houston’s teenage years. But when Houston signs with Arista, she chooses to follow her manager/father’s advice to “be seen in public with young men,” which eventually culminates in her marriage to Bobby Brown.
Crawford broke her long silence about their intimacies in her New York Times bestseller, A Song for You, (2019). There, she details stories of homophobia, secrecy and her heartbreak when Houston decided to end their intimate relationship in the service of her career. Houston eventually hired Crawford as her manager, and they tour together, careful to represent their close, working relationship as platonic.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is directed by Kassi Lemmons (Harriet, 2019) and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018).
The first half flows freely, reminding us of Houston’s unleashed talent and radiant beauty. There are moments in the middle third of the film when Naomi Ackie “becomes” Houston. We escape reality, and breathe in the presence of musical genius, sometimes with tears in our eyes. Houston is in the house.
Clive Davis is among the executive producers of the film, and his love for Houston lives on in this story. Whenever and wherever possible, the production team leads with Houston’s strengths.
But the story must end, and the last third of the film details the tragic details, the lost and unreachable Houston’s unchecked substance abuse disorder, her volatile broken marriage, her waning confidence and her scorched vocal cords.
The final scenes seem to drive off center, as if the production team and all the players are themselves heartbroken. They flashback to her 1994 American Music Awards performance, Houston’s finest hour, to remind us of her truest self, but by then we are heartsick too.