The Voice. No, not the NBC sitcom. When the great singing voices get brought up – apologies to Mariah, Aretha – there’s THE Voice. The incredible Whitney Houston. That larger than life voice carried with it a person whose life fits the musician’s arc to a T. Though unlike other more selfish singers’ biopics, there’s no joy in watching I Wanna Dance With Somebody turn into a cruel whisper by the end.
Here’s the quick bulletpoints for Gen Z. In the early 1980’s, Whitney Elizabeth Houston (Naomi Ackie) was already well on her way to a singing career, headlining gospel choirs and singing backup vocals for her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) at cabaret bars in Jersey/New York. One night, legendary producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) arrived at Whitney’s club, and after hearing her sing, immediately signed her to a contract. Because of that incredible voice and her incredible beauty, Houston instantly became a star, and gave every one of her close family and friends jobs. Dad John (Clarke Peters) was her manager, and her best friend (maybe more?) Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) joined as an executive assistant. At her peak in the mid 1990s, Whitney struck up a relationship with New Edition’s Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), which if you search through Whitney’s tabloid history, is when her career, life, and voice really start to take a turn.
I’ll give this to Kasi Lemmons and Andrew McCarten, the writer and director: they get the essence of Whitney Houston. Even though she was born a bit privileged, at Whitney’s core is a desire to be loved, and the way she expresses it is by pleasing everyone. So when it comes to Whitney’s rise, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is as electric as you might expect it to be, because all she’s doing is making everyone happy. Through her generational talents, Whitney goes on stage everywhere and delivers pop hit after pop hit, printing money and delivering for fans everywhere and especially the people she’s chosen to love. Naomi Ackie is incredible in these performances (she can sing, but smartly, she’s not “The Voice” so she’s dubbed onstage), coming alive expressing that God given gift she has. During the rapid ascent, Lemmons and McCarten drop some pre Bobby B hints that not all is well: hardcore people pleasers have to change all the time to make people happy, meaning poor Whitney can never really truly know who she is. But it doesn’t matter, because I Wanna Dance With Somebody is about to come out, and turn the theater into a giant wonderful singalong the movie should mostly be.
And then Bobby Brown shows up. Yes, they did have a daughter, Bobby Christina, that brought Whitney joy, but in general, this is where Whitney’s emotional (and sometimes physical) abusers start to manipulate and control her for their own selfish gains. For those who know Whitney’s life story, her biopic should really have been more sad and darker, because of how cruelly her voice was taken away. Instead, the movie flies through the headlines, and the cocaine bumps. I lost count after like 15. I get that we have to know she’s struggling, but the movie never makes her look as desperate as she probably was. And more irritatingly, it goes for the schmaltzy ending, which simply was not Whitney’s real story. The movie should have had her lose the real loved ones (mom, Robyn, Clive) one by one, then the manipulators (dad, Bobby), then finally, her voice. The story sorta does that, but rushes through it so we don’t feel anything, except maybe boredom from seeing versions of Whitney’s story we’ve seen before (Straight Outta Compton, Bohemian Rhapsody), another cruel injustice to an otherworldly talent (none of the blame on Naomi Ackie though, she’s great in this section too, playing hurt and a bit delusional).
I’ve been to too many “90s nights” in bars not to fall in love with Whitney Houston. She had all the gifts, and wants to share them with everyone, and electrify a crowd. Don’t believe me? See what happens when I Wanna Dance With Somebody goes on at a wedding. Or how she outshined the greatest American event, the Super Bowl, with the greatest Star Spangled Banner performance of all time. Only The Voice could pull that off.