Whitney Houston’s story has been told countless times on the screen before, but never like this.
Hitting US theaters this week, new film Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody aims to tell the full tale, being a no-holds-barred portrait of the woman behind The Voice.
Made with the full support of Houston’s family and estate, we see how Whitney goes from being a choir girl in New Jersey to one of the biggest pop stars of all-time.
Whilst there is a focus on her music as we witness how Whitney’s numerous chart hits were made, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is also an intimate account that explores her personal life and struggles, wanting to uncover the truth underneath the infamous salacious headlines.
Director Kasi Lemmons makes this clear from the start as we see the moment Whitney met Robyn Crawford, the beginning of a life-long friendship.
Crucially Whitney is portrayed as queer with the two having a relationship as teenagers, something which has long been speculated but was only confirmed by Crawford in 2019.
Star Naomi Ackie, who stuns with her stellar lead performance, told Zavvi that to remain faithful to Whitney’s story you had to show her exploration of sexuality:
“I think it wasn’t even a decision really as it’s part of her story. I think taking that out would take away a part of Whitney. It’s an important dimension of her.
“Outside of the fact that her first relationship was with a woman, the love that they shared in her earliest years helped shape who she was, so it’d be really hard and not right at all to take that away.
“I read Robyn’s book and it’s just like, there wasn’t a word for it. They didn’t have a word for the love that they shared together. So this is really refreshing and a lovely nod to that kind of relationship.”
One of the other important relationships we see is the one between Whitney and record producer Clive Davis, the man who helped make her an international star.
Upon signing Whitney to his record label, Davis emphasises to the young singer that he always ensures his relationships with his artists are strictly business, never involving himself with their personal lives.
However, over the course of the film we see the pair grow closer, becoming firm friends, forming a bond that does result in Davis stepping in when Whitney begins to battle drug abuse.
Now aged 90, Davis is still going strong, recently attending the I Wanna Dance With Somebody premiere with actor Stanley Tucci who plays him in the film.
As Tucci revealed to us, he dived into Davis’ history to ensure he perfected his portrayal of the record executive, with his conversations with the man himself being indispensable.
“I was away working in Italy so I wasn’t able to meet with him in advance of filming really. But I talked with him for an hour on Zoom, I’ve watched the documentary about him a couple of times, and I read his book.
“All that stuff was invaluable – the fact there was so much footage of him throughout the years, that made a huge difference in helping get his voice and movement.
“Then I actually did meet him for like half an hour the day before I started shooting and it was great. He was so helpful. You want to be respectful and not do an imitation, you want to try get underneath it all, make it as real as possible.”
As Tucci states, there is a fine line to walk when it comes to playing a real person – you want to capture their essence without the performance falling into caricature.
For Ackie this was particularly tricky as to put it lightly, Whitney Houston quite simply is an icon, making this role an intimidating one to take on.
The question was – how do you even begin to figure out how to play Whitney Houston? The answer, as Ackie reveals, lied in listening to the star’s voice.
“Acting – sometimes it’s like no effort at all and some days it’s effort, then the next it won’t be with something magical happening that day that informs the work.
“It’s quite an elusive art form I would say but over the course of it there were definitely click moments, usually when I could hear Whitney’s voice, and scenes that I thought would be hard but weren’t. It’s an experience of all of those things.”
Although Ackie doesn’t sing in the film, the voice we hear is Whitney’s, the actor did have to recreate several iconic performances ranging from the candy-coloured How Will I Know music video to the powerful Impossible Medley she delivered at the AMAs.
Ackie admits that filming some of these was “absolutely terrifying”, explaining: “Some were more fun that others – the further we went down the line, the longer I had been filming, the more enjoyable they became.
“But How Will I Know was the first one I did and that was terrifying. Absolutely terrifying. Part of me, the child inside of me, was like ‘oh my gosh, you are like a pop star’ but then the adult me was like, ‘okay no, you have to get this right as you only get one chance’.
“Whatever you do on the day, that’s it, that’s what you get.”
Featuring a soundtrack of Whitney’s most beloved hits, we also hear the likes of ballad Where Do Broken Hearts Go and dancefloor classic I’m Every Woman.
But what are the film’s stars’ favourite Whitney songs? Right off the bat, Tucci tells us it is Greatest Love Of All, whilst Ackie is more indecisive:
“I feel like everyone is gonna think I’m lying as I keep changing my answer but the truth is it changes every day, depending upon what I feel like.
“Oh my gosh there’s so many but I’m Your Baby Tonight is still one of my jams, it would be my karaoke song. It used to be I Wanna Dance With Somebody but hey, that’s taken now!”
That it is Ackie, that it is. But still, don’t you wanna dance?
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody releases in US theaters on December 23.
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