Under the direction of Kasi Lemmons, I Wanna Dance With Somebody takes on the daunting task of telling the story of one of the greatest talents of a generation. The candid Whitney Houston biopic set for release today highlights both the singer’s ascent and descent, and the major life events that contributed to each.
Starring Naomi Ackie as Whitney “Nippy” Houston, Tamara Tunie as Cissy Houston, and Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis, I Wanna Dance With Somebody begins in the church with a solo from a teenaged Whitney that is followed up by a contentious private music lesson with her mother, Cissy. While alone with her mom in the dimly lit church, there’s a slight rebelliousness that emerges from a young Whitney as she challenges her mother’s music instruction. The scene is a prophetic foreshadowing of what arguably came to define The Newark-bred star’s legacy in part –the innate struggle between the flesh and the spirit, and the tug of war that comes along with deciding to use one’s gifts for “the world’’ or for “the church.”
Her Mother’s Daughter
I Wanna Dance With Somebody transparently shares the influential role that Cissy played in shaping her daughter to become one of the bestselling artists in music history. In one telling scene early in the movie, Cissy feigns having a cough when she notices record executive Davis in the audience of a venue where she was supposed to perform. She strategically removes herself from singing a powerful song so that Whitney can belt it out before the powerhouse musical producer. Davis immediately recognizes Whitney as “the voice” of a generation, and signs her. Yet it is made clear early on in the film that Cissy, as a mom and a businesswoman, wasn’t simply throwing her daughter to the wolves. While their close mother-daughter dynamic is explored in the film, Lemmons does her due diligence to ensure that the struggles that Whitney had with her mom and dad aren’t brushed under the rug.
A Strife-Filled Family Life
It’s not just Whitney’s relationship with her parents that’s explored in the film, but also that of her entire family and extended members. For instance, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten makes it a point to note that it was Whitney’s brothers who introduced her to drugs, not her future husband Bobby Brown, as he’s long been accused. The film also doesn’t shy away from the likely possibility that Whitney had a relationship with her long-time assistant and creative director Robyn Crawford, played by Nafessa Williams. It’s also made evident that if there was a relationship, Whitney’s parents didn’t approve, and that may have been a possible source of guilt for the entertainer. In one scene, Whitney’s father instructs her to “Be seen with young men.” In another, she tells Crawford, “We can go to hell for this sh-t!” These moments, sprinkled throughout the film, demonstrate Whitney’s acute awareness of the duplicitousness of her identity.
America’s Pop Princess
One of the strongest aspects of I Wanna Dance With Somebody’s storytelling is the theme of crafting a brand identity and the psychological implications that often come along with upholding that persona against one’s lived reality. The film details Whitney’s personal struggles with other’s perceptions of her at great length. On one hand, she was branded as “America’s Pop Princess” with cross-over success and national appeal. On the other, she was perceived as not being Black enough by the African American community. At one point within the film, Whitney quips, “They are calling me an oreo.” To that end, this film does a great job at posing the question, “What defines a Black artist?”
Unprecedented Success and Insurmountable Pressure
Whitney’s personal struggles with addiction are handled with great care in the film, and in contrast to the dominant portrayals of her in pop culture, her downward spiral isn’t made a mockery of in this project. There’s a Biblical saying, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and arguably for Whitney, a woman who loved God, the weight of her gift to sing and captivate audiences, coupled with being responsible for the livelihoods of those closest to her, required more than she could handle, and this film fairly depicts that.
Overall, Ackie shines as Whitney and portrays her with ease, though she doesn’t physically resemble the singer which, at times, is hard to get past. Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown is exceptional, from the sound of his voice, to the embodiment of his mannerisms. Clarke Peters as John Houston and Tunie as Cissy both bring nuance and clarity to their roles which denote their many years of acting experience. Tucci as Clive Davis brings precision and even a little humor to his portrayal of Davis. And Williams as Robyn is intriguing and shows the breadth of her range. However, too much time is spent at the beginning of the film showcasing the friendship and courtship between Robyn and Whitney.
At 2 hours and 26 minutes, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is too long as a film, and may have worked better as a mini-series. The soundtrack is powerful, and often outshines the biopic. However, the skilled leads and ensemble cast help to anchor the screenplay. The production design from Gerald Sullivan and David Offner’s art direction create the kind of 80’s, 90’s and 2,000’s nostalgia moviegoers crave. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones also masterfully styles the cast and brings an attention to detail that’s characteristic of every film project she takes on.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is rated PG-13 for adult themes around drug use, alcohol, and some sexual innuendo. It premieres nationwide on December 23, 2022.