‘This film is a corrective’: Whitney Houston biopic aims to change the narrative

In the 10 years since Whitney Houston lost her life, four movies have tried to tell her story. In quick succession, we got an unauthorized documentary, an endorsed one, a Lifetime TV depiction, plus a film that focused squarely on her relationship with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. According to Anthony McCarten, who has written the first big-budget Hollywood biopic of the star, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, those films all had one thing in common. “They’re obsessed with her mistakes,” he said to the Guardian. “They were all sensationalist.”

At the same time, he believes they accurately mirrored the jaundiced view many have long held of the star. “When people hear the name ‘Whitney Houston’, they inevitably say the word ‘tragic’,” McCarten said. “It’s a universal perception. In some respects, this film is a corrective to that.”

It’s one many may approach with a bit of skepticism. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is the brainchild of Houston’s estate, which includes her sister-in-law and executor Pat Houston, as well as the company that controls key parts of her musical rights, Primary Wave, and the man who signed, and some say, shaped her, Clive Davis. Though they have all endorsed the final product, McCarten strongly contests the assumption that it resulted in any softening or censoring of his work. “I said to them ‘you will not have authorial control over this,’” he said. “I’m not doing this to flatter anybody. The public can smell a rat if it’s a puff piece.”

In fact, the movie’s director, Kasi Lemmons, said there were scenes in the film that definitely made the estate uncomfortable. “One of the things that was most challenging about this was dealing with real people, with real emotions and memories and points of view,” she said. “They had approved the script but seeing it as a movie was a different thing.”

While the film’s final cut includes some of the grimier, or more controversial, details of Houston’s story – in fact certain things are made more explicit than before – the film-makers admit that their primary goal was to make the film a celebration. “I wanted to focus on her vast achievements,” McCarten said.

Towards that end, a great deal of the film centers on the creation and performance of her music. At the same time, that music sounds dramatically different from the way it did on the studio recordings, in live concerts or in TV performances. Everything has been buffed and amplified to take advantage of a modern movie theater’s Dolby 5.1 sound system. The result thunders right through you. All the vocals come from Houston, but the breaths of the actor who plays her, the British star Naomi Ackie, have been deftly incorporated to make the physicality of the performance palpable. “It’s got to sound, and feel, like she’s singing live,” Lemmons said. “And Naomi knew every breath of the songs.”

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The depth of those breaths, and the dexterity with which Houston deployed them, are two elements that McCarten considers key to her brilliance. “Any musician who ever stood behind her during her performances would often note that this small frame of hers could magically expand,” he said “She would take in a breath with her whole rib cage. They say whales can do this when they sink miles beneath the ocean. They expand their ribs to hold enormous amounts of air. The way Whitney could hold that ballast of air, combined with the force with which she could sustain the high notes and add vibrato, was majestic.”

Of course, the high-wire drama of her music found a mirror in the constant tug between the triumphs and tribulations in her life. One controversial aspect that’s presented with more frankness and specificity than in any previous depiction is her relationship with her friend and business associate Robyn Crawford, who had no involvement in the film. While earlier works strongly implied a lesbian relationship, the new film makes it physically explicit. According to Lemmons, part of that has to do with details offered in Crawford’s memoir, published in 2019. McCarten said the public’s changing attitudes towards sexuality also played a part. “We live in a much more tolerant time,” he said. By contrast, “being open in the 80s was very, very difficult”, he said.

The pain of that judgment is driven home in the film by the strongly disapproving attitude towards the relationship displayed by Whitney’s father as well as her mother, Cissy Houston. Both Lemmons and McCarten believe that if Houston had come up in today’s age of non-binary pop stars like Janelle Monáe and Demi Lovato, she could be fully out about her relationship with Crawford. As to how Houston viewed her own sexuality, Lemmons believes she was “fluid”, while McCarten opts for the description “bi-curious – at least in her younger days”.

The futility of placing a single label on Houston’s sexuality was something she shared with Davis. One scene in the film shows him revealing a male lover to her. While Davis didn’t talk about such things in public then, he wrote about it in his 2013 memoir. “It was important to Clive to put that in the film,” said Lemmons. “He and Whitney had that in common.”

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Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

One sexual aspect that’s notably absent from the film is an assertion made in the 2018 documentary by Kevin Macdonald that the singer had been molested by a female friend of the family when she was young. Though the estate had authorized that film, McCarten said “They were very unhappy” with the result. “They felt that Kevin had overrun the boundaries of the deal that they had,” he said. “The accusation at the center of it was unsupported by anything that [Whitney] had told anyone else. For Kevin to have based a documentary on it seemed fragile. I would have needed a substantial amount of supporting evidence to include that.”

The new film is more direct in dealing with the issues in Houston’s life surrounding race. It recreates the infamous scene at the Soul Train awards where she was booed and features a scene during a radio interview at a Black station in which the DJ echoes a common complaint of the day: that her music was “too white”. McCarten’s script has Houston calling out the inherent racism in that view with righteous clarity. At the same time, such accusations wounded her deeply. “To have your own people calling you an ‘Oreo’, is extraordinarily painful,” Lemmons said. “I would certainly hope that the conversation would be different now.”

The lack of nuance in Houston’s day underscores the pain she experienced for falling on a fault line of assumptions about both race and sexuality. Worse, she had battles within her own family, most notably with her father, who served as her manager. Shortly before his death he sued her for $100m. In the film, he’s depicted as treating her more like a financial asset than a human being. “I had a personal experience with John that shook me up,” Lemmons said. “He was the one who spoke to me about ‘the brand’. That was very chilling. That was his daughter that he was talking about!”

McCarten has a different view. He called John Houston “a villain with a very small ‘v’. Even at the end, when he was suing Whitney, he had in his mind a justification for that,” he said. “He put this record deal together for her and he thought that the money was being wasted by Whitney and Bobby. He did a lot for his daughter.”

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Regardless, the singer never made peace with her father and didn’t attend his funeral.

The depiction of Bobby Brown, while, at times, rough, lifts the blame some people have put on him for Houston’s physical decline. In one scene, Whitney tells him directly that she was into drugs before she met him. Like Crawford, Brown had no involvement in the film.

Despite the many sad moments in the film, it makes good on its goal to showcase Houston’s brilliance above all, aided by the fact that its creators had access to far more of her music than earlier film-makers did. The movie finds its peaks in the recreations of epochal performances, like her triumphalist rendering of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl. “She was the architect of that performance,” McCarten said. “She slowed the whole thing down to give herself room to do her thing. And she sure did.”

Another stand-up-and-cheer moment arrives in a scene depicting the Concert for the New South Africa, which was the first show held in that country after apartheid. “Whitney knew how to make a performance speak to a moment,” Lemmons said. Added McCarten, “When she sang I Will Always Love You at that show, she extrapolated it from a love story to another person into a love story for freedom.”

Eclipsing all that is a performance from the 1994 American Music Awards where she combined three daunting songs to create a suite the film-makers have called “The Impossible Medley”. It includes I Loves You, Porgy (from Porgy and Bess), And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going (from Dreamgirls) and her own hit I Have Nothing. Houston compares singing them together to “climbing Mount Everest without oxygen”. “She’ll be singing full out and you think, ‘this is as good as it gets,’” Lemmons said. “And then she goes higher.”

Given the power of such performances, as well as the love Houston managed to experience in her life, McCarten refuses to view her as a tragic figure. “If you view a life as flowers, at one end of the scale, and a pile of shit, on the other, which is there more weight to?” he said. “Whitney’s life had vastly, vastly more flowers.”

  • I Wanna Dance With Somebody is out in the US on 23 December and in the UK and Australia on 26 December

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