The boundaries between an artist’s life story and ornate tombstone shatter in the moving Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody by director Kasi Lemmons. Written by Anthony McCarten, it begins in 1983 in a New Jersey church where a young Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) is being taught the finer points of singing by her famous mother, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie). While hanging out, she meets Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), and sparks start flying.
Always headstrong, Whitney defies her parents by moving out of the house and moving in with Robyn. Her talent gets the attention of Arista Records executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who signs her. Whitney’s father, John (Clarke Peters), becomes her business manager and takes control of her public image. Not only does John disapprove of his daughter’s romance with Robyn, but he starts forcing Whitney to date men in public.
“Not only does John disapprove of his daughter’s romance with Robyn, but he starts forcing Whitney to date men in public.”
While her star rises, Whitney is pulled further apart from Robyn, as their love would poison the singer’s place on the charts. She also faces backlash from black radio DJs who accuse her of selling out to white audiences. As pressure mounts, Whitney eventually gets married to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). This causes her drug use to skyrocket. Soon Whitney’s bright stardom starts burning down everything around her.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody fulfills the first challenge of a music biopic by getting folks who aren’t already fans interested. I didn’t give a s**t about Ray Charles or Mozart before I saw their biopics. Same with Houston, who was omnipresent on the radio while I was in high school in a way I didn’t appreciate, as her pop was nudging my beloved New Wave off the air. This film won me over by showing all the pressures the ultra-successful Houston had to fight against. There was pressure from her mother to live up to her high vocal standards and from her father to keep generating money. Whitney was pressured to deny her sexuality by a queer-hostile world and pressure from her own community over her wide appeal.
"…the producers wish to preserve and enshrine Houston's legacy..."