Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten, discovered by record executive Clive Davis, Whitney Houston rises from obscurity to international fame in the 1980s to become one of the greatest singers of her generation. Starring: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters and Daniel Washington.
Stepping into the shoes of such a legendary icon as Whitney Houston is a daunting challenge, but one Naomi Ackie was sincerely prepared for. Ackie’s been doing solid work in her career, with a huge variety of characters but none have let her break out as much as I Wanna Dance with Somebody. She’s magnificent in this role and a key part of that is capturing the presence of Houston, the passion and commitment and impressively she instils all of it into this performance. You can’t look away because as the film goes forward, she just has more and more to add. She draws you in with the youth, enthusiasm and raw talent then keeps you hooked with the emotion and determination.
It certainly helps that Ackie is backed by a fantastic supporting cast, starting out with Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford. The relationship that they have is a wonderful thing to watch, in good times and bad, and it’s great to see that Kasi Lemmons captured the intimacy but chose not to take the limelight away from the story by making it physical. Williams captures a firecracker of a performance in Robyn, she’s unwavering, loyal, encouraging and protective. Then there’s the ever appreciated Stanley Tucci, a film could be genuinely terrible and it would still be a joy to watch Tucci in it. He adds another notch to his career, it’s charming and sweet, he adds some humour and works beautifully with Ackie. Tamara Tunie may come in and out as Houston’s mother, Cissy throughout the film but she makes a big impression, particularly in the latter moments of the film where she really hits those emotional notes.
One of the greatest things that the film has to offer is how much it appreciates Whitney Houston’s music and talent. It doesn’t just show you how she built her career, it does justice to her instincts and stage presence, as well as being a gigantic reminder of the sheer amount of fantastic songs Houston released over the years. It’s not often a film can constantly be weaving through an emotional range of making you laugh, cry and want to get up and dance. On top of that the story gets a great grasp on how so many artists in that era were dealing with people trying to fit them into a mould, and never told that being themselves was enough. Anthony McCarten also does a great job of dealing with the topic of addiction sensitively, it doesn’t take over the story and it’s not scandalous. It almost views it through her daughter’s (Bria Danielle Singleton) eyes.
An interesting choice of Kasi Lemmons is how the story moves, the pacing is relatively slow, it has a slightly patient edge to it. At the same time, the progression doesn’t feel slow at all, it has a thoughtful style which is perfect to bring through the tinge of sadness that litters the story. There’s also a gradual change to the palette and atmosphere, starting out brighter and bouncy then evolving with the turn to Houston’s life and leaning into a darker, colder, sombre aesthetic. Lemmons’ style holds the weight of fame in the back of its mind, adapting as it gets heavier, as Houston’s star rose.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a wonderful tribute to the talent and legacy of such an ingenious superstar. It encompasses the highs and lows but its focus never really strays from being a loving monument to her music. Hopefully this is just the first of many leading roles in the future of the incredible Naomi Ackie, she took on a gargantuan challenge and she knocked it out of the park. She captures that stellar stage presence, her intelligence, commitment and as time goes on, her weaknesses brought about by the difficulties in her life. It will leave you with a heavy sigh and a tear for her final moments but it’s also a fantastic reminder of just how incomparable Houston’s catalogue of hits is.