Feel the heat with somebody

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” displays Whitney Houston’s ambition and heartache

Marissa Getschman, Arts and Entertainment Editor

Rating: ★★★★★★★★★ (9/10)

When asked who Whitney Houston was, many people will automatically refer to the singer as “the Voice” and talk about her once-in-a-generation skill level. They’ll then say that she died young due to substance abuse and shrug when asked what else. As is often the case, there is so much more to the star and her story. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is overall a beautifully written and well cast biopic on Whitney Houston’s tragically short life and career. 

Despite the genre the film is labeled as, the structure isn’t that of a true musical. In a musical, the characters sing to move the story along, while in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” music is used almost as an aside. Houston was a musician through and through. Her story can’t be told without displaying her skillset. Instead of having the characters sing their way through life, scenes are woven into songs amidst clips of Houston singing. The format is engaging and keeps the viewers eyes glued to the screen. 

The film does a wonderful job portraying Whitney Houston in a raw light that showcases the range of perspective she had throughout her life. Houston started out as a bright, wide-eyed musician filled to the brim with ambition, but her later life faded into heartache and substance abuse. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” shows both angles with equal depth. In many documentaries about Houston’s life, directors get too enthralled with the gritty hardships she faced in her later years and completely ignore everything that came before. 

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” starts at the very beginning of Houston’s career, before she was discovered by Clive Davis and skyrocketed to stardom. It starts with her mother, Cissy Houston, coaching her and showcases her ambition to get into the music field. The film also takes a moment to show Houston’s friendship and short-lived romance with Robyn Crawford. It sets the groundwork for all the turmoil to come without ignoring Houston’s start as a bright-eyed teenager.  

The ending in particular is quite interesting. News of Whitney Houston’s untimely death in 2012 was widely televised. Whether they want to know or not, many fans can say exactly where and how. The film doesn’t show her death, nor does it show any of her friends or family after the fact. Her fate is instead told strictly through foreshadowing and immediately cast aside for a flashback to her glory days. Viewers that don’t know what happened to her are left to guess until the end credits when the writers distinguish fact from fiction with text and pictures from the real star’s life. 

Casting directors understood the importance of casting a lead capable of portraying a wide range of personality and varying mental states. Naomi Ackie is a beautiful fit and managed to balance consistent character with the changes associated with Houston’s career and personal life. She graces the screen at first with a childlike optimism highlighted by her carefree nature in how she might rise to fame. As the tides turn and the day to day gets harder, Ackie hardens her expression, so subtly at first that the viewer almost doesn’t notice her struggle until her smile is completely gone.

Standout performances from Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford, Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown and Clarke Peters as John Houston are also important factors to the movie’s credibility. All three actors do a spectacular job portraying real people with very distinct personalities while also capturing the subtle details that make them realistic in the first place. 

The only thing keeping the film from earning a 10/10 stems from small details left out that would have been easy to include. There are a number of glossed over scenes and inaccuracies that could have been further explored or corrected without lengthening the movie too much. At the end of the day, fiction is used to enthrall viewers and keep them hanging onto every word until the film wraps up. Audience members will leave entertained and interested in doing their own research on the legendary singer.