Naomi Ackie in 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody'

Review: I Wanna Dance with Somebody

JC Alvarez READ TIME: 3 MIN.

It's immeasurably hard to wrap our heads around the reality that one of the most prolific performers of all time has been gone for a decade. Whitney Houston, considered "The Voice" of her generation, is still regarded as one of pop music's most incomparable performers. When she was discovered by legendary Arista music executive Clive Davis, Houston was already proving her depth and talent as a singer. After all, the New Jersey native was the daughter of the celebrated gospel and R&B singer Cissy Houston and the first cousin of Dionne Warwick.

Whitney sang in her church choir and performed backup in a mother's act, and even carved out a living for herself as a model. Her charm and beauty transcended, but when Whitney sang it was a whole other level. She wanted to pursue a career as a singer, and emerge from under the wing of her mother Cissy, who had very strict ideas about how and who Whitney should be as an artist. As illustrated in the new theatrical biopic based on Whitney Houston's life, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," directed by Kasi Lemmons, she had ideas of her own.

Written by Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten, the film firmly establishes that Houston (played winningly by BAFTA Award winner Naomi Ackie) wanted to push the envelope with her vocal talent. During her first meeting with Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) the pair begin to strategize about the direction her career should take, and Whitney decides she wants to sing songs that are big and that she will perform beyond even her own expectations.

When Whitney made her debut on The Merv Griffin Show, Cissy (Tamara Tunie) was ever-present, conducting the band in order to ensure that everyone would experience a taste of what Whitney was capable of. In the film, Whitney's long-time friend, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) can't help but express herself, watching Whitney taking the stage by storm. The love affair between these two women, long thought a rumor, is revealed in all its passionate glory.

Whitney and Robyn had been friends and lived together. The tabloids may have illustrated their relationship as something notorious, but the movie explores it with an intense and natural reality. Robyn cared deeply for Whitney, and strove to protect her, carefully managing aspects of her career, but only up to a point. It all becomes very difficult to manage as Whitney's star begins to climb and her father (Clarke Peters) begins to suggest that if Whitney is to become America's superstar, she needs to be seen with men in public. Enter Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders).

The toxicity and turbulence kicked up by Houston and Brown is relentlessly narrated in the film. Although Robyn warns her that Brown is not good for her, against the soaring soundtrack of one of Houston's biggest hits, "I Will Always Love You," Crawford helps Houston get into her wedding dress, and walk the fateful steps down the aisle to wed him. The media circus that follows becomes the backdrop as Houston unravels under the pressures of stardom, fame, and her unhealthy marriage to Brown.

The ever-present Davis intervenes when Houston appears to be heading toward rock bottom. Ackie elegantly navigates those deep chasms with an unfathomable emotional resonance. When her peers begin to turn on her, claiming that Houston is not a "Black" enough performer, Ackie reveals her ferocity.

"I Wanna Dance with Somebody" is a textured revelation, and one of those films that gives insight into humanity in the individuals that we put up on a pedestal and then eagerly watch as the media devours them. The film reveals just how much Houston fought to keep it all together, while so many tried to pull it apart. She didn't know her own strength, but she completely ignored her weaknesses.

The centerpiece of the film comes when Whitney stuns the audience with her medley at the 21st Annual American Music Awards. Houston was destined to take our breath away, and her talent escaped us too soon. It's on that stage that Whitney Houston was the most vulnerable and she lifted us all along with her.

"I Wanna Dance with Somebody" opens in theaters on December 23, 2022.

by JC Alvarez

Native New Yorker JC Alvarez is a pop-culture enthusiast and the nightlife chronicler of the club scene and its celebrity denizens from coast-to-coast. He is the on-air host of the nationally syndicated radio show "Out Loud & Live!" and is also on the panel of the local-access talk show "Talking About".

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