Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody – The BRWC Review. By Shani Harris.
There have been many documentaries and television projects released on the life and tragic death of Whitney Houston. The beautiful popstar who was nicknamed “The Voice” passed away ten years ago. She earned numerous accolades in various industries including 6 Grammy Awards, 2 Emmy Awards, 16 Billboard Music Awards and 22 American Music Awards. Kasi Lemmons told me she was handpicked by producer Clive Davis to direct the biopic after she made Harriet starring Cynthia Erivo who earned an Oscar nomination. Whitney Houston is played by newcomer and BAFTA Award winning actress Naomi Ackie who hails from East London. I spoke with Kasi Lemmons who told me that Clive Davis wanted Naomi to portray the music icon that he mentored for years. Lemmons also informed me that Clive Davis gave her extensive notes and that the dialogue in the script was shaped by conversations Davis said he personally witnessed while in the room with Whitney Houston. Academy Award nominated Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten crafted the screenplay, which highlights select moments of the singer’s life that were sanctioned by the estate to make the final cut.
I grew up as a superfan of Whitney Houston who was a rarity in the music industry. She was a beautiful and regal Black woman who had the voice of an angel and reflected a standard of beauty that was never exhaulted before. It was a breath of fresh air that paved the way for other musical divas like Janet Jackson, Beyonce and Rihanna to shine bright. Diana Ross and Tina Turner also experienced success in their careers. Tina Turner’s struggles were turned into an Oscar nominated performance by Angela Bassett in the musical biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It. That film was full of heartbreak but it gave us hope, because the singer made it out of the darkness and survived her obstacles to resurrect her life from the shambles.
Sadly, we all know the outcome of the story with Whitney Houston. She died at 48 years old after losing her battle with drug addiction and being found face down after drowning in a bathtub. This film does not present the glossy treatment of Baz Luhrmann’s production of Elvis that manifested his larger than life mythology, without the unfavorable imagery of a bloated entertainer, who overindulged in peanut butter and banana sandwiches. “I wanted to focus on her vast achievements, McCarten told The Guardian. Some of the re-enactments and flashbacks which are chosen sometimes feel like copy and paste dramatizations of select events.
We are introduced to Whitney as a teenager who loves singing in the church. She is not yet in the business and sometimes joins her mom on stage. Her mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) is a veteran of the biz who never gained mega success. She is steely and commanding while guiding her daughter and literally driving the tempo of her debut audition performance.
Whitney meets her friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) while they are both growing up as teenagers in New Jersey. The have an instant connection and become friends. The first half of the film focuses on their blossming friendship and romance that causes conflict for Whitney’s family and puts her career in jeopardy. Robyn Crawford wrote a book about her relationship with Whitney Houston called A Song For You: My Life with Whitney that chronicled their shortlived romance. Lemmons considered Whitney to be “fluid” while the screenwriter labeled her “bi-curious.”
Whitney gets discovered by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) who shapes her image from finding songs for her to sing to the public persona as America’s sweetheart that the world falls in love with. She catapults up the charts and conducts a radio interview where she is being criticized for appealing to a white audience and neglecting her Black fanbase. “A common criticism of you is your music isn’t Black enough.” A radio host states while confronting the songstress. “Who said that? That’s just bull and it makes me angry actually. It’s hateful and uninformed…” Whitney chides as she confronts the commentator. Her infamous Wendy Williams and Diane Sawyer interviews are never alluded to in the film which actually pinpointed pivotal turning points in her life and career. This critique by a generic host is a substitute for all the unfavorable media attention she received throughout her life.
This was a way to show that despite the fact that Whitney was making historic strides in music. She was being labeled as a more generic pop artist than an R&B singer. Naomi Ackie sounds like Whitney Houston when she speaks and has a decent singing voice to do ad libs and riffs. The naturally gap toothed actress admitted to Graham Norton that she had to wear fake prosthetic teeth for her performance that took some getting used to. I felt the spirit of Whitney Houston, but my heart kept yearning for glimpses of her beautiful imagery to guide me through the narrative. Whitney continues to keep Robyn as a friend and hires her to work on her team to help her as an assistant. She tells her father, John Houston (Clarke Peters) about her plans. She turned him into her manager and head of a management company called Nippy Inc. that was titled after her childhood nickname.
Whitney is confronted by his disapproval about their relationship with the insight that she needs to date men or the rumors about their romance will hurt her brand. Whitney takes his advice and begins to embark on dating a series of various men including singing companion Jermaine Jackson which ends in a breakup. She also allegedly had a romance with Eddie Murphy that is not shown.
Whitney meets Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) when she attends the Soul Train Awards. Their meet cute is funny to witness onscreen. Whitney gets upset by her lukewarm reception at the ceremony. Bobby is seated in front of her and she keeps accidentally smacking him in the head with her purse. He gives her a pep talk and she gives him her number. The pair immediately become a couple, but her friend Robyn doesn’t like the fact that Whitney is sleeping with men. They talk about how Bobby is unfaithful with different girlfriends. Whitney tries to reassure her friend that she has a plan because they aren’t getting married any time soon. But Bobby throws a curveball and fast tracks their relationship. He pops the question in a limo so now she is getting married. Moonlight star Sanders does a good job playing her paramour. He is a bit awkward when he is first introduced as Brown. He seems preoccupied with sucking on his protruding prosthetic teeth like they are chicklets that gave me a chuckle.
He eventually finds his stride as the character. I didn’t initially see the resemblance, but there were some scenes when Ashton is dressed up as Bobby Brown that I did a double take. Honestly I felt at times like he looked more like the R&B singer than Ackie looked like Whitney Houston.
We have now entered the Bobby and Whitney era. Clive Davis informs Whitney that Kevin Costner has personally selected her to co-star with him in a Hollywood movie called The Bodyguard. Davis makes the suggestion that Houston should postpone her marriage because Kevin Costner wants to work with her. The actor made a teary eyed revelation about how much he wanted to be along side the singer at her funeral. “At the height of her fame as a singer I asked her to be my co-star in a movie called The Bodyguard. I thought she was the perfect choice. But the red flags came out immediately. Maybe I should rethink this a bit. I was reminded that this would be her first acting role. We could also think about another singer was a suggestion. Maybe somebody white…The day of the test came and I went into the trailer after the hair and makeup people were done. Whitney was scared. Argueably the biggest popstar in the world wasn’t sure if she was good enough. She didn’t think she looked right. There were a thousand things to her that seemed wrong. I held her hand and told her she looked beautiful. I told her that I would be with her every step of the way. That everyone wanted her to succeed. But I could still feel the doubt. I wanted to tell her that the game was rigged. That I didn’t care how the test went. That she could fall down and start speaking in tongues. That somehow I would find a way to explain it as an extraordinary acting choice and we could expect more to follow. And gee weren’t we lucky to have her.”
The shoot on The Bodyguard set is filmed with footage of Kevin Costner. There is also a re-creation of Whitney recording the music video and listening to the Dolly Parton song that she would re-record into the smash hit I Will Always Love You. Whitney has a setback while filming and suffers a miscarriage. She eventually marries Bobby Brown and that causes a permanent rift with Robyn. The couple eventually have their only child Bobbi Kristina, who is shown growing up at varies ages, but her mysterious death in a similar manner as her mother is never mentioned. The film unfolds with a series of highs and lows from Whitney’s life. Whitney was the soundtrack for many people’s lives so it brings back memories to see her sing her epic rendition of The Star Spangled Banner before her downfall. That scene was edited with b-roll of fans listening and jets overhead after a prerelease clip was trolled by fans of the singer who felt like Ackie wasn’t emoting enough during the performance.
The inevitable begins to happen as Whitney sinks deeper into drug addiction where it has an effect on her stage performances. I remember getting a ticket to a live performance and Whitney never showed up. Fans were told to return to the same arena months later to see her show. All of the concert performances in the movie don’t reflect diverse audiences and are mainly comprised as white attendees as extras which was not her full fanbase. Perhaps that was an aesthetic choice to have the film appeal to a crossover moviegoing crowd.
There was a surprise cameo by The Inspection director Elegance Bratton giving Whitney Houston a pep talk about how much she was loved that I found to be unexpected. McCarten told the Guardian that he refused to view her as a tragic figure. “If you view a life as flowers, at one end of the scale, and a pile of shit, on the other, which is there more weight to?” He said. “Whitney’s life had vastly, vastly more flowers.” I found it odd that the screenwriter was mentioning crafting a story about Whitney’s life and excrement in the same sentence, but it felt like he didn’t always handle her image with care. There was a scene where Whitney was hauled off in handcuffs like a criminal being carted off to jail. It is revealed she is actually in rehab. I found it odd that we were presented with optics of the singer like she was doing something wrong when she was forced into the backseat of a car with her wrists in shackles.
This latest incarnation of Whitney Houston’s life was given the two hour treatment. I kept yearning for more after watching Naomi Ackie lipsync along in music videos and stage performances. This painful saga unfolds like a Shakespearean play with the personal sex life of Clive Davis inserted into a chunk of the dynamics, when it was Whitney’s story to tell. She can no longer shape her own narrative. Her memorable Oprah Winfrey comeback interview is referenced with archival footage of Oprah cheering her on from a tiny screen. We know the unfortunate final ending of this chapter.
Fans of the late singer will be entertained by the nostalgic musical trip down memory lane as an attempt to reconnect with their favorite songs by the legend. I was still left a bit puzzled about the timing of a long musical mini concert that is being performed at the end of the film. It was set up earlier during a conversation with her music director. There is a flashback to her singing at the American Music Awards in 1994. It is referred to as the “impossible medley” of I Love You, Porgy and I Am Telling You from Dream Girls. This was supposed to highlight the prowess of Whitney’s vocal range. However the visuals presented a distraction by putting focus on a tangential love triangle with Robyn gazing longingly at Whitney from backstage while Bobby Brown was in front of the stage in the audience sitting with their daughter Bobbi Kristina. If there was anytime to give Whitney a moment to shine it would have been this one as the immense realization of what we have lost sinks in.
Whitney was a divine light that was dimmed and extinguished far too soon. This cinematic tribute skimmed through her life, however, I did not have the same emotional connection to Ackie’s rendition that I had when Angela Bassett commanded the screen as Tina Turner. Bassett was the perfect conduit for Tina because I felt her ethos, connected with her pain and was brought on a full journey. I was happy to see Tina when she was presented in concert footage. This movie ended with a similar tribute montage to the real Whitney Houston, but this time I felt like I was truly seeing her for the first time after two hours. This is fine if you want to escape into the mirage of Whitney, like you’re watching a shallow holographic image projected on the big screen. It will never be a substitute for the diva we all loved and will miss forever.
The film Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody was good. Our beloved Whitney Houston was great.
Grade : B
Whitney Houston : I Wanna Dance With Somebody opens in theaters on December 23rd.
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