My wife and I went to see the film “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” on January 11, 2023. Both of us are great admirers of the late Whitney Houston and were anxious to finally get to view a biopic of her life.
The film was released on December 23, 2022, by Sony Pictures. Kasi Lemmons directed it from a screenplay written by Anthony McCarten. British actress Naomi Ackie – best known for her role as Jannah in the film Star Wars – did an excellent job playing Whitney and lip–syncing her songs.
Moreover, American actor Stanley Tucci – well known for his TV series “Taste My Life Through Food”– did a great job playing record producer Clive Davis.
But before sharing my take of the film, I want to share what others have said about it.
Rotten Tomatoes markets itself and its Tomatometer score as “the world’s most trusted recommendation resources for quality entertainment.” Professional critics scored Whitney’s film with a 46 percent rating. To receive a positive rating symbolized with a red tomato, the film must be rated at least with a 60 percent. A score of less than 60 percent would award the film a negative rating symbolized with a green splat – which it assigned to Whitney’s film. On the other hand, users with a verified movie ticket purchased gave the film a 92% rating. Bottom line, the professional movie critics disliked the film, while moviegoers loved it!
The critics blame the film for failing to delve deeply into Whitney’s sexuality and drug addiction. In fact, they blame screenwriter Anthony McCarten of committing the same omission in regard to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality when he wrote the screenplay for the film “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Critics ignore the fact that moviegoers go to the theater to escape the hardships of daily life. They are not interested in the struggles and foibles of their idols. Documentaries are better suited for the latter. They go to the movies to live vicariously for a couple of hours the lives that they dream of. It is a high that they are after – which can only be rendered by giving free rein to their emotions, to their souls rather than to their intellects.
Let’s not forget that the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was nominated for five awards at the 2019 Oscars, and it won four – including Rami Malek winning the one for the Best Actor. Anthony McCarten proved that he knew what his clients looked for in films and what boosted his profit margin.
It’s films like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” that moviegoers go to get their money’s worth – and, thus, the explanation for their 92 percent likeability rating for the former.
The lesson to be learned is that when you are looking for great books or films, don’t look to the professionals to decide what’s best for you! Look to what the general public has to say about the matter. Excessive analysis of any topic brings about paralysis of the mind and the soul. It’s better suited for academic circles than for general consumption.
I’ll proceed to share my thoughts on the Whitney Houston’s story.
I first started to pay attention to Whitney after attending a performance by George Benson at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia. After listening to Benson pay tribute to Whitney’s rendition of his “The Greatest Love of All” mega hit, I put Whitney on my radar. I was not disappointed, as her rendition exceeded all of my expectations. I became instantly one of her fans.
Fame followed her at an early age, and with it came challenges. Rumors about a lesbian relationship with best friend and Creative Director Robin Crawford interfered with the sought-after portrayal as “America’s Black Pop Princess” and with her parents’ religious background. Nevertheless, there are plenty of articles that this relationship was short-lived and ended when Whitney’s singing career took off.
One of the best scenes and lines in the film is when Clive Davis tells Whitney: “You smoking is like leaving a Stradivarius in the rain.” Clive always tried to steer Whitney away from her demons.
What drove Whitney to her drug addiction is mostly speculative. One thing for sure, she started using them when she was in her teens – before her marriage to Bobby Brown. She told Robyn Crawford that she first tried cocaine when she was fourteen. Her father and manager John generated much stress in Whitney’s personal life with the mishandling of her finances and repeated efforts to shape her image. Frequent criticism by some in the African-American community of her selling out to White audiences by her musical repertoire and her image did impact her immensely. While denying it at first, she answered intelligently the question about her “white-washing” during an interview by saying that she only sang “great songs” without placing a racial or ethnic litmus test on them.
Whitney was not the first nor the last to be criticized for her association with Whites. Donna Summer and Tina Turner had no problem with what detractors said about their White husbands. And I can’t forget the wonderful friendship and collaboration between Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers. Lionel wrote the song “Lady” for Rogers, and it became one of his biggest hits. Love and music do not discriminate against anyone!
Attempting to prove her blackness and heterosexuality could have contributed to her tumultuous marriage to African-American singer Bobby Brown in 1992. Media coverage of the “bad boy antics” of husband Bobby dragged Whitney into the mud as well. Increased violence and infidelities led to a breakup in the marriage in 2007. The stress of family career and family struggles led to increase in her drug usage, but public notice increased when her drug use started affecting her vocal range.
The film shows a clip in February 2012 that portends the end. Whitney goes to the bar in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton, in Los Angeles. She meets bartender Stephen who has been a long-time fan and who reminisced about seeing Whitney perform at the 1994 American Music Awards. Stephen thought that Whitney’s performance was the best that he’s ever seen. He tells her how privileged he felt back then and now that he’s met her and treats her to a drink as a token of his appreciation. Whitney grows pensive and nostalgic about the legacy that she might leave behind and her realization that her vocal range will never be the same again.
On February 11, 2012, Whitney is declared dead from drowning in her bathtub triggered by an accidental drug overdose at age 48. A later autopsy in March 2012 revealed that her death was caused by drowning and the “effects of atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use.” There is another rumor spread by private investigator Paul Huebl that Whitney was murdered by two men who were trying to collect a debt for drugs. Regardless of the rumors, what matters is that Whitney is gone forever.
Looking at Whitney’s triumphs and downfalls, I’m reminded of our own mortality. Many are lucky to handle fame with poise and self-control. Andrea Bocelli comes to mind. But the majority who reach the pinnacle of their professions are lousy managers of their success and personal lives. Elvis Presley, Elis Regina, Michael Jackson, Natalie Cole, and Amy Winehouse are but a few of the great who succumbed because of their drug use.
Regardless of the cause of death, their talents and contributions that molded the music scene of the time immortalized them in the pantheon of champions, kings, and queens.
By her accruing six Grammy Awards, selling over 170 million records, and setting a record-breaking of seven consecutive #1 hit songs (the Beatles and the Bee Gees share the previous record of six consecutive #1 hits each), Whitney Houston will be remembered as one of the best female vocalists of all times.
If you are person who values the arts and humanities, who gives free rein to the emotions when exposed to greatness, and who lets music move you, then go see the film “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” You won’t be disappointed!