In the era of the biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is able to hold its own – especially considering it’s been released around the same time as Avatar: The Way of Water. Not many films were brave enough to go up against the James Cameron blockbuster at the box office.
Exploring the life and career of legendary singer Whitney Houston, the film is directed by Kassi Lemmons and produced by Clive Davis and Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law. Written by Anthony McCarten, a New Zealand writer and filmmaker who is no stranger to biopics (Bohemian Rhapsody and The Theory of Everything are among his repertoire), it’s very much a celebration of Houston’s life and the impact her music had on the world, as evidenced by her sales of over 200 million records worldwide.
Even though it delves into some of the troubles that Houston faced throughout her career, it manages to portray them in a way that makes us sympathise with what she dealt with behind her monumental success.
It stars British actor Naomi Ackie in the titular role, who wonderfully portrays the many facets of Houston, from loveable, caring and sweet to sometimes lost and exhausted, to determined and triumphant. The music is the stand-out in the film, reminding us of how powerful Houston’s voice was. Even though the film uses Houston’s own voice, Ackie does a great job of embodying the singer and capturing her natural mannerisms as well.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody offers a more positive insight into Houston’s life than the 2018 documentary Whitney (2018) – a much grittier look at her career, drug use and turbulent relationship with her father, ex-husband Bobby Brown, and fallout of her friendship with creative director Robyn Crawford. As with Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) and Rocketman (2019), it’s intended (and largely succeeds) as a reminder of all that was good about Houston, the only singer to have ever scored seven consecutive number-ones on the US Billboard 100 charts.
The film is also a welcome change from the overused stereotypes about Black women depicted on screen. For example, The Woman King, while another standout performance by actor Viola Davis, reinforces the idea of Black women as warriors, as did did Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. This screenplay, while at times heartbreaking, offers more time and nuance to what was happening in Houston’s life. In Black Panther: Wakanda Forever the Black women are portrayed as strong, independent and resilient. The problem with this is that it feeds into real-life situations where Black woman are not believed to feel pain and sometimes not given the space to fail. In this film we are given a chance to see a Black woman who is not just successful and strong but vulnerable and scared.
An important aspect of the film is the relationships Houston valued in her life, particularly with Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) who discovered her, and with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). Houston and Crawford were friends for almost 20 years and both the film and documentary explore both the personal and business aspects of the relationship. There had always been speculation about whether the two were more than just friends and the film seems to suggest they were in a relationship.
Another important relationship was the one Houston had with her mother Cissy (played by Tamara Tunie). Tunie has a standout performance, showing how Houston’s mother was a great mentor and support. Cissy was an amazing singer herself and Tunie’s strength and conviction in the role is quite captivating.
The fashion in the film is eye-catching and even sometimes matches the set. For example, when Houston (Ackie) is being interviewed about whether her music is ‘Black enough,’ the records stacked along the wall behind her match the colours of the tiny embellishments on her denim jacket, with costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones doing an incredible job of bringing Houston’s style back to life. Even though the outfits reflect the various time periods during the singer’s career, they could still be worn today, cementing Houston’s place as not only a musical star but a style icon.
For fans who may already know some facets of Houston’s life, the film acts as a reminder of her career highlights, which sometimes get forgotten or overshadowed by the darker times she went through during the latter stages of her fame. It also reminds audiences that she was not only a singer but an actress too, with references to 1992’s The Bodyguard.
While there has been some criticism that the film is formulaic and bland, what it does provide is a portrayal of Whitney from the perspective of her family and close friends – unlike the 2015 TV movie Whitney (2015), which was slammed by Houston’s family because the filmmakers never asked permission to make it. We are so used to getting an exposè that is negative, harrowing and confirms our own idea of what Whitney should be. Why can’t we be happy with seeing the good?
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is in cinemas now.