December 21, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Culture Representation: Taking place from 1983 to 2012, in various parts of the world, the dramatic film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Entertainment superstar Whitney Houston has struggles with her public image, her sexuality, fame, drugs, her parents and a volatile marriage to singer Bobby Brown.
Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Whitney Houston fans, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” will appeal primarily to people who want to see music-video-styled recreations of her life and relatively tame depictions of her biggest public scandals.
At times, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” looks more like a cliché checklist of the legendary diva’s high points and low points instead of being an insightful biopic. However, the cast members’ performances, led by a dynamic Naomi Ackie, elevate this uneven movie. The recreations of some of Whitney Houston’s most beloved performances and music videos are among the highlights of this biopic, which sometimes gets dragged down by corny dialogue and tedious pacing.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a movie sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which is overseen by her sister-in-law Pat, who is one of the movie’s producers. Whitney Houston—who died at age 48 in 2012, of a drug-related drowning in a Beverly Hills hotel bathtub—has been the subject of some tell-all documentaries and books since her death. Therefore, the only people who might be surprised by what’s in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” are those who don’t know what’s already been revealed in these tell-all stories or in the tabloid media.
That’s why everything in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” feels like a retread with nothing fresh or innovative to offer in telling Whitney’s story. However, the movie delivers in its intention to be a nostalgia trip for her music and in doing faithful and meticulous staging of many of Whitney’s iconic moments. This is a movie made for fans who don’t want to see anything too shocking or too unflattering about Whitney.
Ackie’s performance as Whitney admirably captures some of the magic of this entertainment superstar. However, this depiction of Whitney never looks like a true embodiment but more like a better-than-average imitation. Some of Ackie’s real singing is in the movie, but the majority of Whitney’s singing in the movie consists of the real Whitney’s recordings. (And wisely so, since no one can completely duplicate Whitney’s extraordinary vocal talent and style.) Ackie, who is British in real life, also does a credible but not outstanding imitation of Whitney’s speaking voice.
Because this movie does not aspire to be prestigious, award-winning art, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” serves its purpose in delivering Whitney’s hits as a soundtrack to the portrayal of her life’s melodrama. Much of the real-life raunchiness and decadence are toned down to make her story more appealing to audiences of wide age ranges. The movie never takes the time to understand Whitney’s inner thoughts, but instead gives viewers plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that was already exposed years ago.
There are some touches of comedy that generally work well to lighten the mood. But sometimes, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” tries too hard to gloss over much of her emotional pain. Anything truly depressing in her life (which might have contributed to her drug addiction) is never fully examined, because the movie then jumps back into showing another Whitney performance. In other words, these are surface-level portrayals of Whitney’s problems.
For example, the 1991 miscarriage that Whitney had while filming the 1992 film “The Bodyguard” (her feature-film debut, which spawned the blockbuster soundtrack of the same name) gets less than two minutes of screen time. It breezes by with a scene of Whitney being comforted on a hospital bed by then-fiancé Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders), with him telling her they can have other children in the future. And the miscarriage is never mentioned again. In real life, according to several people who knew Whitney and talked about her in interviews, this miscarriage had a profound and traumatic effect on her, but you’d never know it from watching this movie.
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” screenwriter McCarten also wrote the divisive screenplay for “Bohemian Rhapsody” (the Oscar-winning 2018 biopic of British rock band Queen), which got a lot of criticism for jumbling the band’s timeline too much and fabricating important details. “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t have those problems, since the movie sticks to the basic, well-known facts of Whitney’s life. The film’s tweaks to Whitney’s life timeline are minor and do not significantly rewrite factual history. The movie shows a good balance of Whitney in the recording studio and on stage, but the depictions of how she deals with her personal problems are often reduced to soundbites.
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (which takes place from 1983 to 2012) is told mostly in chronological order, except for the movie opening with the introduction to her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to at the end of the film, which concludes in a somewhat long, drawn-out and awkward way: Her entire medley performance (of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Have Nothing”) is recreated on screen when the end credits should have already been rolling.
The movie depicts Whitney’s rise to stardom, beginning in 1983, when she was 19 or 20 years old and a backup vocalist for her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston (played by Tamara Tunie), who had a great deal of influence on Whitney as a singer. Cissy is portrayed as loving but also very strong-willed and domineering with Whitney. As a performer, Cissy was well-known but not rich by any stretch of the imagination.
Cissy’s headlining status was mostly at large nightclubs and small theaters. And even though Whitney’s cousin is Dionne Warwick, Whitney’s godmother was Aretha Franklin, and the Houston family mingled with showbiz royalty, Whitney grew up in a middle-class home in the New Jersey cities of Newark and East Orange. Cissy often spent a lot of time away from home as a touring artist to pay the family’s bills. Cissy’s then-husband John Houston (played by Clarke Peters) was also Cissy’s manager. Like many famous divas, Whitney’s first manager was also her father.
As shown and told repeatedly in the movie, Cissy and John (who would eventually divorce in 1990, after 31 years of marriage) frequently argued because John expected Cissy to be a more attentive to the family despite her busy touring schedule, while Cissy resented having to be the family’s main source of income for years. Whitney’s older brothers Michael (played by JaQuan Malik Jones) and Gary (played by Daniel Washington) are briefly seen near the beginning of the movie, in a scene where all three siblings are smoking marijuana together in one of the family’s bedrooms. In real life, Gary (who married Pat in 1994) and Michael have admitted that they introduced Whitney to marijuana and cocaine, which became longtime addictions for her. (Whitney’s older brother John Houston III is not shown and is barely mentioned in the movie.)
How did John and Cissy Houston’s troubled marriage affect Whitney? The movie quickly depicts a young adult Whitney looking sad and disturbed as she listens to her parents arguing in another room. But she’s never really shown opening up to anyone about how all of this turmoil affected her. By the time Whitney meets Robyn Crawford (played by Nafessa Williams), who’s three years older than Whitney, on a basketball court, Whitney is all too happy to name drop the famous people who are in her family, in order to impress Robyn. The movie portrays Whitney and Robyn’s first meeting in 1983, when they actually met in 1980.
As shown in the movie, Whitney and Robyn became fast friends and eventually became lovers. For a while, Whitney and Robyn lived together before Whitney became famous and during the early years of her fame. It’s a romance that the real Crawford publicly confirmed in her 2019 memoir “A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston,” after years of speculation and gossip about the true nature of their relationship. Brown, who was married to Whitney from 1992 to 2007, also told intimate details about his volatile relationship with Whitney (which included love-triangle jealousy between him and Crawford) in his 2016 memoir “Every Little Step: My Story.”
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” then shows the expected rise to fame of Whitney, beginning with a very contrived-looking scene of Cissy seeing Arista Records founder Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) in the audience before the start of one of Cissy’s shows at Sweetwater’s Club in New York City. Cissy pretends to lose her voice, so that a confused Whitney would go on stage in Cissy’s place. Whitney sings a cover version of George Benson’s 1977 song “The Greatest Love of All,” which later became a hit from Whitney’s 1985 self-titled debut album. Clive is predictably blown away by Whitney’s talent; some variations of “I can make you star” scenes happen; Whitney signs a record deal with Arista; and Whitney becomes an instant smash.
Throughout the movie, Whitney is shown being torn between her public image and how she lived in private. From the beginning of her career at Arista, it was planned that she would have the image of a clean-cut princess who would have wide crossover appeal among many races and generations. Behind the scenes, Whitney is shown as someone who was already using drugs, and she didn’t really like wearing the dresses and wigs that she was pressured to wear as part of her “princess” image.
Behind the scenes, Whitney and Robyn were open about their relationship, but Whitney’s father/manager and other handlers told Whitney to appear like a heterosexual bachelorette who wanted to eventually get married to a man. Because of Whitney’s religious Christian upbringing, the movie shows her often being personally conflicted about her same-sex romance with Robyn, while Robyn had no such doubts. When the tabloid media would later report that Whitney was a lesbian, Whitney would deny it, which is technically an accurate denial, because she was also sexually attracted to men, and she probably identified as queer or bisexual.
When Whitney has a short-lived affair with singer Jermaine Jackson (played by Jaison Hunter), her duet partner on 1985’s “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do,” the movie shows Robyn flying into a rage and trashing the home where she and Whitney live. The movie does not mention that Jermaine was married to his first wife, Hazel Gordy (daughter of Motown founder Berry Gordy), at the time of Jermaine’s affair with Whitney. Eventually, Whitney and Robyn moved on to other love partners, but Robyn and Whitney continued to work together.
The movie also shows how Whitney’s relationship with Robyn led to clashes with Whitney’s father/manager John (who didn’t like that Whitney hired inexperienced Robyn as Whitney’s personal assistant) and later conflicts with Whitney’s husband Bobby, when Robyn had been promoted at the time to being Whitney’s creative director. (“She’s my princess!” John sneers at Robyn, during one of the movie’s cringeworthy lines of dialogue.) When the addictions to drugs and alcohol got out of control for Whitney and Bobby, the movie portrays Robyn as one of the few people in the couple’s entourage who would try to put a stop to it. But those efforts got stubborn resistance from self-destructive Whitney and Bobby. Robyn, who eventually quit working with Whitney in 2000, left the entertainment business.
Whitney’s relationship with Robyn in the early years of Whitney’s career are the scenes that seem the most genuine in portraying the “real” Whitney Houston. In a somewhat amusing scene, Robyn and Whitney both barge into John’s office, where he and his mistress/secretary Barbara (played by Andrea Eversley) are interrupted while being affectionate with each other. Whitney reacts like she knows that her father has been cheating on her mother, but Whitney doesn’t want to talk about it. Meanwhile, before Barbara leaves the room, she calls Whitney the family nickname for Whitney—Nippy—and Whitney and Robyn give each other a look, as if they’re thinking, “Say what? How dare she use the name Nippy!”
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has repetitive scenes of Whitney being bothered by criticism that she wasn’t “black enough” for some black audiences because of her choice of music, her mainstream success and her “America’s sweetheart” image. In other scene, Whitney gets defensive and angry with a radio DJ who tells her that many black people think she’s a sellout to her race. Whitney also makes a point of telling people that she didn’t grow up spoiled and rich.
The movie shows how Whitney tries to keep her composure in the audience when she gets booed at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards while her name was announced as one of the show’s nominees for Best Music Video, and losing in that category to Janet Jackson. Robyn is Whitney’s date at this show. The movie alters a few details, because the booing incident actually happened at the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards, not at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards.
The 1989 Soul Train Music Awards was where Whitney met Bobby, who was seated in front of her. Whitney gets his attention by swinging her purse deliberately so that the purse hit his head. (In real life, Whitney said she got his attention by kicking his chair, and he was really irritated by it.) Sanders portrays Bobby as someone who can be both a selfish troublemaker and a generous charmer, but the movie still leaves out some of the worst public information about Bobby.
Tucci’s portrayal of music mogul Clive is surprisingly subdued and not as interesting as it could have been, considering the real Clive Davis (who is one of the movie’s producers) has a reputation for being very charismatic. The movie shows Whitney telling Clive before she makes her first album with Arista that she doesn’t want to make white music or black music. She just wants to make great music. It’s one of several examples of the movie’s hokey dialogue that doesn’t ruin the movie but certainly lowers the quality of the film. Another example is when Clive first sees Whitney perform at Sweetwater’s Club, and he declares to his subordinate Gerry Griffith (played by Lance A. Williams), who persuaded Clive to be there: “I believe I’ve heard the greatest voice of her generation.”
The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to explain why Whitney didn’t go to rehab sooner for her addictions. In a scene shortly before Whitney records her first album, Clive promises that he won’t judge her or lecture her about her personal life. It isn’t until Whitney starts canceling performances, and the record company is losing money in other ways because of her drug problems, that Clive finally intervenes and tells her that she needs to go to rehab. It’s a very over-simplified scene because there were a lot more people involved in enabling Whitney and getting her to go to rehab. Her first public stint in rehab was in 2005.
What stands out most in this movie are undoubtedly the near-perfect recreations of Whitney’s on-stage performances, with the best highlight being Whitney’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991. The scene is shown with the pomp and circumstance of immersing audiences into a VIP experience of that spectacular performance. Even though in real life, Whitney used a prerecorded track instead of singing live, the energy in the performance and her vocal expressions are what really captivated people the most.
Other recreations in the movie include Whitney’s performance of “Home” on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1983; her music videos for 1985’s “How Will I Know,” 1987’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” 1992’s “I Will Always Love You” and 1998’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”; and 1994’s Whitney: The Concert for a New South Africa. The movie also has performances depicting some of her tours spanning several decades, from the 1980s to her ill-fated 2009-2010 last tour. The songs she performs in these concert scenes include “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” “I’m Every Woman,” “So Emotional” and “One Moment in Time.” There’s also a depiction of Whitney’s musical director Rickey Minor (played by Dave Heard) convincing a reluctant and skeptical Whitney in a rehearsal space to do her 1994 American Music Awards medley and rehearsing it for the first time.
The movie accurately shows how her final tour wasn’t exactly a triumph, since many of the shows were not well-attended, started late, or were canceled. In addition, Whitney got some negative reviews for not being able to hit the same notes that she could in the past. Whitney’s financial problems and her legal battles with her father (who sued her for $100 million in 2002, as he was dying in a hospital) are also depicted like more plot developments in a soap opera. Pat Houston (played by Kris Sidberry), who took over as Whitney’s manager after Whitney fired her father, is portrayed as the person who pointed out to Whitney that John Houston’s irresponsible spending led to Whitney’s losing so much money, she describes her fortune as “almost gone” in a scene where she confronts her father about it.
For every showstopping musical performance in the movie, the off-stage recreations are hit and miss, usually marred by shallow dialogue and very contrived scenarios. When Bobby and Whitney begin dating and are labeled an “odd couple” by the media, Bobby is defensive and tells Whitney why they have so much in common: “We from the ‘hood!” Bobby’s marriage proposal in a limousine is made to look intentionally comedic. As soon as Whitney says yes, he confesses that one of his ex-girlfriends is pregnant with their second child. Whitney gets angry, storms out of the limo, and the couple has one of many arguments shown in the movie.
Whitney and Bobby’s 1992 wedding, which was extravagant and had about 800 guests in real life, looks like a cheap imitation in the movie, which does a quick montage that makes it look like hardly anyone was at the wedding. Don’t expect the movie to give much insight into how Whitney was as a mother. Whitney and Bobby’s daughter, Bobbi Kristina (played as an adolescent by Bria Danielle Singleton), is portrayed as Whitney’s sidekick who doesn’t have much of a personality. (Bobbi Kristina’s tragic death at age 22 in 2015 is not mentioned in the movie.)
To its credit, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is more candid and a better-made film than Lifetime’s relatively low-budget 2015 movie “Whitney” (starring Yaya DaCosta as Whitney), which was directed by Angela Bassett. Lifetime’s “Whitney” movie was not sanctioned by the Whitney Houston estate, which might be why “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” excels in showing Whitney as a music artist. For all of its shortcomings, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” at least gets it right when it comes to representing Whitney’s musical essence that remains her greatest legacy.
TriStar Pictures will release “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in U.S. cinemas on December 23, 2022.