Of all the songs to name a Whitney Houston biopic after, why “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”? Sure, it was a global hit and one of her best-known songs. But as we head-bop along, we might well take it as a blithe pop song. That is, unless we’ve seen what this song might have meant to a closeted young woman who felt trapped by the spotlight.
In the Kasi Lemmons-directed biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebodywhich was made in cooperation with Houston’s estate, this titular track becomes a coming-out anthem, posthumous by 10 years. And though tinged with pain, both the song and this radiant movie sing in celebration of a bold woman who wouldn’t let her voice be silenced.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody centers on Whitney Houston’s queer romance.
Before there was Bobby Brown, there was Robyn Crawford. She was known for decades to the public as Houston’s friend, assistant, and eventually creative director. but I Wanna Dance With Somebody reveals the formative romance that forged Crawford and Houston’s bond, through dizzying highs and devastating lows.
Skipping past Houston’s childhood, I Wanna Dance With Somebody begins in 1983, in New Jersey, where a preppy-in-pink Whitney (Naomi Ackie) and confidently butch Robyn (Nafessa Williams) meet as young women. Around Houston’s parents, who fill her schedule with church services, family quality time, and nights performing together at clubs, Whitney is held to a picture-perfect princess standard, meant to appeal to thrill-seeking audiences and conservative congregations alike. But around Robyn, she can relax, laugh, play, and dress however she damn well pleases.
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Ackie is incredible in her portrayal of Houston, not only capturing the iconic public persona known so well by the world, but also exploring private moments, blissful and brutal. Lemmons uses Houston’s recordings for the singing, but Ackie is a superb lip-syncher, selling it to the point where you might wonder if she really is belting these tracks out. Yet there’s no mistaking The Voice.
Ackie’s chemistry with Williams (whose screen presence sizzles in love and agony) is hot from their meet-cute, their smiles reflecting each other as their eyes blaze. Whether they’re giggling together, rejoicing over a song on the radio, or arguing about the future of their relationship, this chemistry urges us to root for Whitney and Robyn. Even though we know that heartbreak is coming.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody glosses over the tabloid bits.
Houston’s life was regularly made a spectacle by merciless gossip rags, but Lemmons’ approach refuses to play their game. With a two-hour-and-26-minute runtime, I Wanna Dance With Somebody must move fast to unfurl the full story of a larger-than-life pop idol. So, Lemmons smartly takes an IYKYK approach, essentially abridging the most scandalous bits rather than wallowing in them.
The progression of Houston’s drug addiction is hinted by a puff here, a toot there, and a scene of her looking worrisomely strung out. The backlash against her is swiftly depicted with a combative radio interview and a clutch of protesters. The destruction of Whitney and Robyn’s honeymoon phase is accomplished in three short scenes. In one, Whitney’s homophobic father/manager demands the girls present as more feminine and date boys. Enter: a duet recording session with a male artist of note. Hard cut to Robyn tearfully screaming at Whitney, “You slept with Jermaine Jackson!”
It’s a hard cut that could play as comical for its abruptness. But in Lemmons’ confident hand, the directness feels conversational, as if to say, “You know how this goes,” so the story can move past these much-publicized bits to get back to the intimate.
Houston’s tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown is handled with similar candor. In the movie, their first flirtation rockets to a dramatic proposal at breakneck speed. But Lemmons and Ackie seem less interested in inviting audiences into that troubled bond as they do in explaining what Bobby represented for Whitney. Aside from an undeniable sexual attraction, she desires the attitude he as a Black man in R&B was allowed to exude publicly, where she’d be scorned for such forthrightness. Taunting paparazzi together is their version of a first date, and Whitney is afire with excitement over the freedom to hit back at those who treat her like defenseless prey.
The couple’s descent into lawsuits, domestic disputes, infidelities, and divorce is handled with a slight remoteness, refusing to engage with Brown’s perspective, but not demonizing him either. The heartbreak Bobby causes Whitney is clear across several scenes of screaming matches. Yet Lemmons moves past the hurt feelings with a rousing recreation of Houston’s music video for “It’s Not Right, But It’s Okay.” (Other hit tracks are likewise used for slick emotional bridges.) Then, for good measure, a recovering Whitney meets with Bobby to unburden him of blame… even as the movie suggests he wasn’t the partner she really needed.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody seeks the Whitney Houston beyond the headlines.
A strong pace might rush past some of Houston’s darkest moments. Yet the incredibly high standards and constraints that fenced the artist in are clear: her parents’ homophobic religious views, her high-pressure persona as America’s Sweetheart, the weight of being a Black woman in the public eye, the demand for her to earn, earn, earn to keep her family and sprawling business afloat.
When her unflappable energy and megawatt smiles falter, Whitney confesses to Bobby, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore. Be everything to everyone.” My heart plummeted into my guts when he looked her head on and replied, “Well, you can’t stop now, right?”
In a film stitched with heartbreak, this moment may hit the hardest, because we are invited to imagine what might have happened if Whitney had said this to Robyn. In real life, Brown even admits such curiosity, telling US Weekly in 2016“I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today.”
Without wildly diverging from the real story, this biopic cracks open a possibility of what might have been if the artist who sang of the “Greatest Love of All” was invited to have her own on her own terms. And this takes us back to the title song.
In cliched musical biopics, a singer/songwriter has some grand epiphany that inspires the catchy chorus we all know and love. However, Houston wasn’t a songwriter. So her movie sidesteps this trope. Instead, we get to hang out with her and record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci in lovable Dad mode) listening to demo tapes in search of a song she can make her own with The Voice. And while Davis shrugs over the bop, Whitney stumbles to express what it means to her. It’s about “really wanting to dance with somebody, but — for whatever reason — you just can’t.”
Ackie’s delivery of “for whatever reason” is deceptively blithe, but a stolen glance at Robyn, perched on a nearby couch, speaks the volumes that Daddy’s princess/America’s Sweetheart/Friendly Inoffensive Role Model Pop Star can’t dare say. So she sang it. And from that point on, whatever the song, we can imagine she’s singing it for the same reason: not only for Robyn, the woman she loves but can’t claim, but also for the Whitney she wants to be — but feels she can ‘t, without disappointing someone or everyone.
in this way I Wanna Dance With Somebody brings Houston down off the platform, pulls her up from the muck of the tabloids, and welcomes her into the empathetic embrace of the queer community, happy to claim her just as she was. Though Houston’s story ended tragically, her movie delivers us back to a climactic moment of success. With it, Lemmons invites us to remember Houston at her best and boldest. The result is a biopic that’s suitably grand, smart, defiant — and as glorious as Whitney Houston deserves.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody opens in theaters Dec. 23