She was one of the greatest vocalists – if not the greatest – of all time, but behind The Voice was a troubled woman who felt pulled in different directions, and ultimately, the worst direction. In the latest in a number of films or documentaries delving into the life of Whitney Elizabeth Houston, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is perhaps one of the most frank and closest to the truth, almost straight from the sources closest to her.
A while ago I previously wrote about the documentary Can I Be Me, which talked quite a bit about Whitney’s alleged sexuality, which while a little problematic – not least of all because it was not backed by her family and estate – it almost felt like the nearest thing to the truth behind some of Whitney’s biggest secrets and dramas. I Wanna Dance with Somebody follows the life of Whitney Houston (portrayed by the up and coming great English actress Naomi Ackie) and all its ups and downs of being not just a global superstar, but a Black woman “from the hood” and from a seemingly good Christian family. A Black woman who is “always tired” as she says and a Black woman who is practically shunned from her own community because of her choice of colour blind songs. It documents her start where star quality was already shining through when singing in church and backup for her mother in a club, and from meeting and befriending Robyn Crawford to meeting the legendary Clive Davis (played brilliantly by Stanley Tucci) and signing with Arista Records, her ridiculously fast rise to fame and the downfalls that came with that.
One thing one cannot help but think when watching I Wanna Dance with Somebody, or any of these films and shows about her, was that Whitney never seemed to truly be able to be who she was or wanted to be. From having to ditch the natural tomboy look she always had as a teenager to hiding her alleged sexuality and relationship with or feelings towards Robyn, from even being able to sing how she wanted to to sometimes even being able to sing what she wanted to, from being able to live a happily married and family life with Bobby Brown and Bobbi Kristina to being in control of her own money. Whitney may have let it all out vocally in the studio and on stage, but there was always so much holding her back as a person.
As a biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a thoroughly well-acted film where much of the cast – and of course especially Naomi Ackie as Whitney – did their homework when it came to embodying their characters. Ackie as Houston was – despite many people being more interested in the fact she doesn’t look much like her (which is quite beside the point really) – was stellar as the star from a teenager through to her final years, with mannerisms, tone and delivery on point, both as a performer and off stage. Although they predominantly used Whitney’s original vocals, at times Naomi’s lip syncing was so good you could almost be fooled into thinking it was her if Whitney hadn’t existed. Ackie’s own singing voice was obviously used in some scenes, showing chops and style that she no doubt – like every other singer since Nippy – was influenced by.
Nafessa Williams, who also had a supporting role as Kim in the 2015 Angela Bassett-directed TV film Whitney, plays Robyn and really encapsulates what it was like for the lover turned best friend and Creative Director of Whitney as she tried to be her rock throughout but ultimately just couldn’t compete against the will of Bobby Brown and the influence of drugs that almost consumed her. But thanks to Robyn’s book A Song For You, which revealed more than many might have liked to hear, her pivotal and prominent role in Whitney’s life is not diminished in this film.
While it’s unlikely to be the last retelling of Whitney’s life, I Wanna Dance with Somebody will certainly be one that shines one of the most honest lights on it, which is also rather surprising seeing as her sister-in-law Pat Houston is a co-producer and the executor of her estate, continuing the narrative that the Houston family have long kept the lid on much of Whitney’s truth and past or at least tried to downplay most of it. So although there are a few shockers in the film that you might not have expected to be in it, including the realities of Whitney and Robyn’s relationship and even Clive Davis’ own sexuality (Stanley Tucci always seems to end up in many ambiguously gay or bisexual roles, such as in Burlesque, The Devil Wears Prada, and even Easy A) and the extent of John Houston’s clutches on his daughter’s finances, it is essentially a film that may help people to really understand some of the things she went through that drove her to do what she did as much as her ambition to be a world famous singer drove her to the top of the charts.
And if there’s two things the film does to you as you finish it after hearing Naomi reciting “Home” from The Wiz in a poignant and tear-filled reminiscing of how and when Nippy once sang it on her TV debut performance back in 1983, it’s that Whitney Houston was as real and as human as any of us, yet we never got to see much of who that human was unless she was dehumanised by the media. And secondly, though there were reports of people walking out of her shows from her final tour, there still never will be another singer like her, even in her later years as she continued to give it her all and sang with all her soul, from her head, heart and gut.
Rating: 👸🏾👸🏾👸🏾👸🏾 (4/5)