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Review: Clive and Whitney’s Relationship Is Unveiled in ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

Review: Clive and Whitney’s Relationship Is Unveiled in ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

The biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody tells the story of the iconic singer through the rise and fall of her career as one of the greatest voices of our time.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) and written by Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten, the story of Houston homes in on her professional relationship with legendary music executive Clive Davis, who is also a producer on the film. 

Houston, played by BAFTA award-winning actor Naomi Ackie, is not depicted as some tragic figure; instead the movie sheds more light on her music and ascension as a music artist in a tough-as-nails industry not fit for every soul. While Houston dominated the pop charts, her Blackness was questioned and her financial livelihood was compromised by her own family members. 

The narrative begins with a short-haired young Houston in the 1980s singing with her mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) in church. Cissy is depicted as stern, assertive, and determined to make Houston the best singer she can possibly be. Every note has to be just right, and stage fright is not an option.  

While it’s known that Davis (Stanley Tucci) discovered Houston in a New York City nightclub, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody portrays Cissy as being instrumental in setting up Davis to see Houston perform that night, which ultimately led to her getting a record deal through Arista Records. Davis, who has managed such luminaries as Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd, had a great deal of autonomy over the development of the film.

In an interview with Avenue Magazine, Davis stated he would like to see justice done to Houston’s story. Previous films and TV movies have been made about the eminent singer’s life, but the prolific music executive was not pleased with any of them. 

Having Davis be a creative architect of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody was certainly helpful with respect to the music rights. A significant portion of the film is filled with Houston’s quintessential ballads. Some songs are played in their entirety, and others contain just a snippet of the chorus. What was remarkable was the impact Houston had with many of these songs; I as a viewer found myself lip-syncing all of the lyrics. It just speaks to the magnitude of her influence.

Another notable part of Houston’s life told in this film is her relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). In November of 2019, Crawford released her tell-all book A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, about her romantic relationship with the famous singer. The film shows how these two met and unveils the trajectory of their partnership throughout Houston’s career. Unfortunately, the film does a bit of a disservice to the Houston-Crawford relationship, leaving viewers curious why Crawford stayed long after Houston broke off their tryst. 

Crawford’s character appears to be the one more smitten and in love, and Houston was focused on outward appearances and keeping her career intact. While the film does note Houston’s religious beliefs, it doesn’t dig deeply enough into how they impacted her views on same-sex relationships or affected how she dealt with the conundrum she was likely wrestling with during her time with Crawford. There’s also a moment when Crawford is infuriated over Houston’s brief liaison with singer Jermaine Jackson, but she later is accepting and nonchalant about Houston’s announcement of her marriage to R&B artist Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). 

Brown, a controversial figure in Houston’s life, is a two-dimensional figure in this film, and this doesn’t add much to Houston’s story other than the fact that his infidelity to Houston started before they got married. 

The only relationship in this film that offers new information for the Houston story is the one between her and Davis. He’s a parental figure, a friend, and a confidant, and, as someone who is also sexually fluid, he shares his own secrets about his bisexuality with Houston. Davis also tried to get Houston to rehab to sober her up when the drug use was taking its toll. The film makes it clear that these two had a relationship that went beyond that of music executive and artist. 

Ackie gives a stunning performance as Houston, taking on the challenge of performing both as Houston the singer and as Houston the person. Ackie is not trying to impersonate Houston with her acting but rather striving to embody the notable singer with various idiosyncrasies.  

As the last chapter of Houston’s life comes into focus in the film, there is a touching scene between her and a bartender, in which she sees how influential and impactful she was to him as an artist. The cameo of the bartender is played by none other than filmmaker Elegance Bratton, the director of The Inspection

Fans of Houston will love this film for its music. Her voice is in all of the songs featured in the film, and incredible power ballads such as “Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Always Love You,” and the film’s namesake, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” are present. My favorite scene was the world-class performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed at the 1991 Super Bowl. I found myself covered with goose bumps, and a tear fell from my eye. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody has those emotional moments that capture your heart. 

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody makes its debut in theaters nationwide December 23, 2022. 

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