Whitney Houston had “the Voice.” It was trained, expressive, and clear. She didn’t write the songs she sang, but interpreted them, capturing the imagination of a generation. The first triple RIAA Diamond-certified-selling Black artist, Houston broke records set by the Beatles, Elvis, and Sinatra, which had nothing to do with racial divides. Now streaming on Netflix, I Wanna Dance with Somebody stars British actress Naomi Ackie, who plays Houston as a harried artist, only taking her time during performance, but rushed on and off the stage.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody), the musical biopic captures the melody of Houston’s life but also speeds the beat. It misses the rests between notes. Most of the erroneous materials come from narrative streamlining. For instance, Houston wasn’t discovered because her mother, the ever-professional Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), showed up at a club like Sweetwaters pretending to have laryngitis. Whitney had a scheduled spot on the show with two solo pieces. When Clive Davis, played by Stanley Tucci in the film, heard Whitney perform “The Greatest Love of All,” he heard the future in the exceptional acoustics of that Upper West Side space.
“It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”
The film does accurately capture the unprecedented contractual deal, “in perpetuity and throughout the universe,” which was struck between Houston and the Arista label. Davis’ loyalty to the singer is true, as is his nonchalant bisexual admission, which was confirmed in his 2013 memoir The Soundtrack of My Life. Houston’s relationship with Robyn Crawford, played by Nafessa Williams on screen, is a fictionalized version of the truth because much of it flowed from Crawford’s 2019 memoir, A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston. The scene where Houston’s father John (Clarke Peters) suggests the pair start “dating young men” in public may almost be verbatim.
Jermaine Jackson was Whitney’s first public boyfriend. He wasn’t only stepping out on the Jackson family though. Jermaine was married when the pair recorded the duet “If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful” for his 1986 album Precious Moments. Crawford’s memoir also backs up the film’s claim that Whitney’s mother tried to have Robyn fired later in the later years of the singer’s work. In his autobiography Every Little Step, Bobby Brown, portrayed by Ashton Sanders in the film, wrote that Whitney might not have succumbed to the final drug addiction relapses if Robyn was still in the inner circle. The film makes a good case that Crawford was looking out for the aspiring singer she met as a young idealistic college student.
“Quit bitchin’, Farmer, this is the part you do get paid for.”
Houston was dating Eddie Murphy when she was offered the co-lead in 1992’s The Bodyguard, which means she very well might have tossed the script straight in the garbage after hearing the plot, as the film shows. Adding Kevin Costner as a second punchline is a venerated law of comedy. The truth is the payoff was a setup from the actor himself. Costner had been pitching the script to Houston for years, according to Crawford’s book.
In I Wanna Dance with Somebody, during the making of The Bodyguard, Davis brings Houston the tape of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” saying he is passing it along from Costner. In numerous interviews, Houston said Costner pulled her aside in the trailer and was very excited to present her with “the song” he thought was perfect, warning her it was a country ballad. Houston knows a good song, regardless of genre. No actor was hired to play Costner in the biopic, and Tucci steals every scene he is in, so we let Davis get away with the mythology of the song choice.
“Dancin’ on the Smooth Edge”
As the film showcases, Whitney’s success was met with backlash that she was selling out. Activists did protest how Houston, whose nickname was “Nippy,” relaxed the street edge to crack the glass ceiling. The Rev. Al Sharpton tried to change Whitney’s brand from America’s Sweetheart to “Whitey Houston,” infuriated at how she promoted herself to a white demographic over the Black community. Houston’s retort to the film’s radio interview is comprised of a series of quotes the singer made to a variety of magazines and talk shows over the years. Whitney’s reception at the 1988 Soul Train Awards is flubbed.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody shows Houston seated at the 1988 Soul Train Awards, even dropping a card on a rising young fling on his way to a shared future. As Houston’s name is called, she hears boos from the audience and then loses the Best Music Video award to Janet Jackson. While Jackson did win the award in 1988, Houston wasn’t at that year’s ceremony. She lost to Anita Baker in the R&B Soul Single category in 1989 where some of the audience booed her, and she met Bobby Brown. The movie merges the two ceremonies. Brown’s memoir also recalls their first meeting as far more comedic than the film makes out.
“Run to You”
Houston and Brown’s relationship was intimate and intricate, like most, but accentuated by public scrutiny and media obsession. I Wanna Dance with Somebody keeps it as simple as possible, skipping over many complications and condensing others. It completely ignores the couple’s 2005 reality series Being Bobby Brown, with the same abrupt “Hell to the no” reaction Whitney popularized on the show, then squeezes the couple’s most intense moments into reality TV drama masquerading as cinematic slapstick.
Brown did not simultaneously propose to Whitney, tell her about his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and score the synth hook to “Humpin’ Around” in one backseat limo ride. In Every Little Step, Brown remembers proposing in the back of a limo, with a magnificent engagement ring, but no baby talk came up to ruin the moment. In the BET miniseries Bobby Brown Story, which was made with the singer’s approval, Brown tells Houston about the pregnancy backstage after a performance. Crawford’s memoir says Brown confessed to Houston over the phone.
The film is correct that Houston filed for divorce, but Brown writes “the reality is I walked away” in Every Little Step. The film also correctly notes that Brown was arrested for domestic violence in December 2003.
“Dear John Letter”
As the movie depicts, Houston did scrutinize her father’s accounting books and his company sued her for $100 million. The hospital confrontation scene seems too much of a motion picture moment to be true, but Houston’s comeback interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009 backs it up. Whitney also said she forgave her father on his deathbed. John Houston ultimately died of heart disease and diabetes in 2003.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody shows Houston as being too wasted to attend her father’s funeral, but in her 2009 appearance, the singer told Winfrey she didn’t want the media to turn a somber occasion into a circus. She and her family held a personal memorial the day before the funeral. Houston also told Winfrey she was drug-free during the interview.
Drugs, Rehab, Repeat.
“Crack is wack,” Houston told Diane Sawyer in a 2002 interview. The film shows Whitney reject a personal suggestion from Davis, the A&R genius who never meddles in his artists’ personal lives, to go into rehab. He says it is a “matter of life and death,” even worse than her smoking which he likens to “leaving a Stratovarius in the rain.” The movie sees Whitney escorted by a dire uniformed presence into rehab as a direct consequence of being too strung out to attend her father’s funeral, but John Houston died in 2003, and the singer first entered rehab in 2004. The movie oversimplifies Houston’s efforts to get clean. The singer checked herself into multiple rehab programs.
In the film, Brown resents being tagged as the root of all evils, and reminds Whitney the drugs were already there for her when they met. The film opens with a scene showing the Houston children sharing a bong to drown out the sounds of Cissy and John fighting. But the film doesn’t mention Houston’s first major tour in 1986, The Greatest Love Tour, was nicknamed “The Greatest Drug Tour” by all who partook and shared.
Whitney delivered her last performance with Kelly Price in California, as the film notes. On Feb. 11, 2012, Houston was found dead in a bathtub in Suite 434 at the Beverly Hilton. She was discovered hours before Davis’ annual pre-Grammy party, which was not canceled, at the hotel. Her autopsy found cocaine, Xanax, marijuana, and other substances in her system, but the official cause of death was drowning.
After Houston’s death, a dealer confessed to using the autograph approach for clandestine drug delivery. As the film shows, he would ask Houston for an autograph and hand her a pen packed with over three grams of cocaine inside it. There is video footage of them meeting and making the exchange. There is also footage of a raspy-voiced Houston underperforming live, as the film shows, because of drug abuse. The news clip of a particularly bad overseas show is unchanged from its original broadcast.
The Greatest Sin of All
I Wanna Dance with Somebody has an amazing soundtrack. Almost every high point of Houston’s career is represented, and the separation of the tracks brings her voice to the forefront with a clarity unheard in the original pressings. So what’s the sin? Houston was much more than her hits and high notes. Her voice was far more versatile than the empowering songs represented in the soundtrack. Houston could be broken in a song, she would recover by the bridge, but her voice would delve into depths of distress before hitting the heights of elation. Yes, she had the best songwriters crafting the sleekest vehicles to deliver her vocal movements, but Whitney was also able to put her stamp on signature songs by her idols, including her famous family, genius godmother, and especially live.
For the 1997 live Washington D.C. show broadcast on HBO, Houston tears through Aretha Franklin’s hits and purrs a set of her cousin Dionne Warwick’s showstoppers. She put her perfect voice to R&B scorchers or Gershwin tunes, one as part of the 1994 American Music Awards performance medley—“I Loves You Porgy”/ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”/“I Have Nothing”—exquisitely featured in the closing of the film. Houston could reinterpret any classic, even if it meant altering the arrangement to suit her delivery.
In the film, Houston’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV is presented as a bold personal fashion statement, passing up racks of glitzy crowd-pleasing outfits for a chance to be herself at a ball game. The truth is Jan. 27, 1991 was cold, even in Tampa, Florida, and a white tracksuit was warmer than a dress, according to A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston. Houston could also wear it back to the box and watch the game. She left the song on the field, its ashes still smoldering. The National Anthem was originally written in a jaunty 6/8 time, usually played as a triumphant 3/4 waltz. Houston had the arranger change the time signature to 4/4 in order to put more space between the notes.
While much is said about Houston’s relationship with the church, not nearly enough is given to her immersion into gospel. You may think you hear Whitney’s voice soar when she’s interpreting Dolly Parton, but when she’s singing to God? That voice carries. It is also unbridled in ways which the film does not show. We see Whitney’s upbringing as a gospel singer, her stern training under her pitch-perfect mother, but not the fruits of all that soul-stirring raw devotion. I Wanna Dance with Somebody gives us the hits. That’s half the story.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is streaming on Netflix now.