As a Whitney Houston super fan, this Kasi Lemmons-directed tribute to the life and times of an enduring pop-culture icon is absolutely sensational. It makes you behold the performative brilliance of Naomi Ackie who not just embodies ‘the voice’ with her pitch-perfect lip-sync, body movement, accent and graceful gestures incremental to Ms. Houston’s stage presence but lets us embrace the real ‘Nippy’.
We can use the term ‘transformative’ very easily. Here, Ms. Ackie actually honours the legend with utmost precision and respect. It’s not just the singing and musical repertoire in general. Here, Whitney confronts her manipulative father for his financial misdeeds in two explosive scenes that cement her individual stand and recreates *that* radio interview where she calls out society for its assumptions regarding something as secular and universal as music, or her image as a Black woman in the mainstream.
Hers is a body of work that covers whole performances that every admirer has watched multiple times. Such milestones as The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, her instantly rapturous rendition of Home on The Merv Griffin Show and the showstopping medley of I Love You Porgy, And I’m Telling You and I Have Nothing at the 1994 American Music Awards are all here in their entirety. The commitment to recreating these feats authentically extend to the costumes, make-up and hairstyling, lighting, editing and sound design. Then the sheer joy of watching music videos for How Will I Know, I Will Always Love You and It’s Not Right But It’s Okay unfold with ease, introducing different eras of Whitney’s artistic evolution. Just as her debut at a New York Club with a cover of The Greatest Love Of All, a fortuitous event we know about, is brought to life without shortening her musical prowess in that moment for the sake of lucidity alone. Or her triumphant, bittersweet comeback on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009.
But this isn’t a documentary approach that gets evinced. There’s a real dramatic flair to her beautiful but ultimately troubled reckoning with best friend and creative manager Robyn, her personal unravelling and downward spiral with Bobby Brown as well as the winsome moments when with mentor and actual father figure Clive Davis. Stanley Tucci is a genuinely wonderful presence here as the musical legend who lets Whitney be who she is as an individual and as an artist. Like RESPECT before it, this biopic is stirring in melding the personal and the professional halves together.
The pressures of stratospheric fame, global tours, mismanagement by her own father, the tough love and constant pats on the back from her mother Cissy, her own motherhood and the whirl of a public life marked by substance abuse all lead to her roller-coaster journey. They are all conveyed with tact. We are never made to forget who she is as a full, well-rounded individual, warts and all.
I love how Ackie delivers her body language such as eye expressions, instances of resting her hands on her jaws when pensive and tensed and the weight of years of emotional abuse she carries on her slender, yet physically hollow body. She towers here and in a just world, she would be showered with all the accolades. She has truly done Whitney Houston justice by plunging herself into the mind, body and soul of this cinematic work’s subject. Above all, she is successful in evincing empathy for her and inspiring renewed hope for her legacy. I expected nothing less from the director of Harriet. With big stakes in this story, Kasi Lemmons comes up with a deep-dive that is traditionally chronological but ultimately becomes uplifting and poignant. That’s the worth of this eventful life captured in song.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is available to rent and own on VOD now
by Prithvijeet Sinha
Prithvijeet Sinha is from Lucknow, India. A regular contributor to Screen Queens, he lives for the beauty of poetry in moving images and translates them into stirring writings in verse and prose. He is also a dedicated cinephile.
Categories: Films, Reviews, Women Film-makers
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