‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ film a tricky balancing act for its star and director

Naomi Ackie has the title role in "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody."
English actress Naomi Ackie has the title role in the new feature film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” In the scene depicted here, she recreates Houston’s triumphant performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl.
(Sony Pictures)

The film, which co-stars Stanley Tucci, chronicles legendary singer’s swift rise to fame and soul-sapping challenges that followed


Talk about counter-intuitive!

The fact that “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” star Naomi Ackie looks nothing like the subject of the new film Ackie stars in, proved to be a distinct advantage for the English actress and for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” director Kasi Lemmons. The film opens in San Diego and nationwide on Friday.

“When I got cast, I was like: ‘What?!’ Because I don’t look like Whitney at all,” said the charismatic Ackie, speaking during a Zoom interview last week from New York.

“At the same time,” she continued, “it gave me freedom to create a new version of something everyone knows. This film is an impressionist version of a real person. The thing I learned the most is that it was not about imitating someone to a ‘t’ and looking and talking exactly like them. It was having the freedom to share their essence, because there’s no one else like Whitney — and there shouldn’t be.”

In a separate Zoom interview, Lemmons readily agreed that Ackie, 30, bears little resemblance to Houston. The legendary singer was 48 when she died in February 2012 from a drug-fueled accidental drowning in the bathtub of a Beverly Hills hotel.

Houston’s death came just a few hours before she was set to perform as a surprise guest at the annual pre-Grammy Awards party hosted by legendary music industry honcho Clive Davis, who guided Houston’s career almost from its inception. Her self-titled 1985 debut album yielded three No. 1 singles, including “How Will I Know” and “Saving All My Love for You,” and sold more than 25 million copies.

Her career as a touring artist began in San Diego in 1985

“The first thing I did when they approached me about (directing) this movie is to say: ‘I want to see Naomi’s screen test,’ because she’d (already) been cast,” Lemmons recalled.

“When I did see it, I said: ‘OK, she does not look like Whitney.’ Still, there was some essence of Whitney that Naomi captured — Clive (Davis) could see it, the (Houston) family could see it — some spark that was ‘Whitneyesque.’ (That) kind of freed Naomi from doing mimicry and from trying to be the person Whitney was so exactly.”

Sept. 15, 2004, Whitney Houston, World Music Awards, Thomas & Mack Arena, Las Vegas
Whitney Houston is shown performing at the 2004 World Music Awards in Las Vegas. The singer, who died in 2012, is the subject of the new film, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”

‘A real Black woman’

Lemmons made her directorial debut in 1997 with the critically acclaimed “Eve’s Bayou.” Her most recent film, the 2019 biopic “Harriet,” starred Cynthia Erivo as Civil War-era slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Lemmons, 61, had met with Houston in the mid-1990s to discuss two screenwriting projects.

“The first time I saw Whitney in a video,” Lemmons recalled, “I thought: ‘She’s so beautiful, so effervescent, and her voice is magnificent She’ll be a huge star.’

“When I met her, probably around 1994, my impression was she was a little stressed, that she was tired (from) the burdens of stardom. She seemed very human, very down-to-earth and like a real Black woman, not this icon that was kind of — you know, her early image was very, very polished, and sweet, in a way. She had much more edge (in person). She was funny. She was real.”

Capturing on screen a life as well-chronicled as Houston’s is no easy matter. This holds especially true when that life has been the subject of a previous feature film (2015’s Angela Bassett-starring “Whitney”) and at least two documentaries (2017’s “Whitney: Can I Be Me?” and 2018’s “Whitney”).

Yet, even if those prior movies did not exist, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” director Lemmons and star Ackie would have faced some formidable challenges in making their film.

First and foremost, they had to find a balance between the heady triumphs Houston achieved — as a music and film icon with a storybook-like rise to global stardom — and the soul-sapping lows she later endured. Those included drug addiction, clashes with her domineering father-cum-manager, financial problems, a tumultuous marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown, and Houston’s closeted affair with her close friend, Robyn Crawford.

“Triumph? Tragedy? I think both those things about Whitney are right,” said the award-winning Ackie, whose role as Jannah in 2019’s “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is her best known to American audiences.

“Yes, a triumph, but also sad. I think her human experience is something we can all look at and relate to. Well, maybe not all of it, not selling 200 million records around the world! But the ups and downs that she had? I think everyone has had. It was a life, a full life with all those things.”

That combination of a heroic rise and devastating decline made Houston’s life almost worthy of a Shakespearean saga — a doomed heroine who inspired multitudes, while battling demons from within and without.

“I look at every life as kind of Shakespearean because we all are very similar,” said Lemmons, who last year replaced Stella Meghie as “I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s” director.

“We all hope and dream. We love our children. We struggle, we aspire and, sometimes, we fail. So look at Whitney’s story as a really human story.

“It’s an interesting dichotomy. Here was this person with such tremendous talent, such a rare, God-given gift, who was also subject to human frailties. Yes, there was tragedy in her life, but I don’t think she’s a tragic figure. I think of her as inspiring.”

The music-intensive film features Ackie performing nearly two dozen songs, all but two of which feature newly remixed versions of Houston’s original vocals. (After Ackie sang them for the filming, her singing was replaced by Houston’s.) She nails the singer’s New Jersey accent so well that audiences seeing Ackie for the first time will have no clue she was, in fact, born and raised in England.

“There are some American sounds that are easier than others,” Ackie said with a chuckle.

“The hardest thing is getting it specific to a place and period, learning the inflections, and also making sure it’s of the right time. So, learning an accent related to when Whitney was born, where she grew up and the social (elements) was important for the accent.”

Naomi Ackie at the EE British Academy Film Awards in London, Feb. 2, 2020
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” star Naomi Ackie is shown at the 2020 EE British Academy Film Awards in London.
(Mike Marsland / Mike Marsland/WireImage)

‘A lot to take on’

To prepare for her starring role in last year’s Oscar-nominated “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” San Diego-bred singer and actress Andra Day started smoking and drinking, the better to more realistically portray legendary blues and jazz vocal great Holiday. Day also spent time with recovering addicts to gain insights into their lives and their debilitating habits.

With Oscar buzz growing, the three-time Grammy-nominated singer discusses her breakout film role — in ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday’ — after finding her destiny as a San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts student

The film “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” doesn’t dwell on Houston’s drinking or drug addiction. But it doesn’t whitewash them either, even if her four months of rehab seems to consist mostly of a scene of Houston briefly swimming laps in the pool at her mansion.

“I didn’t smoke cigarettes (before filming),” Ackie said. “But, yes, I did a lot of research into addiction, what it does to the body, how it feels. I watched a lot of interviews about that and had the privilege to talk to Whitney’s family and people who knew her and worked with her outside of (her) addictions.

“So, that was my way in (to the role), one of my ways in. There was a lot to take on.”

The screenplay for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” was written by two-time Academy Award nominee Anthony McCarten. His previous credits include the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” and the 2019 Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Some of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s” scenes vividly recreate high-profile events in Houston’s life, including her bravura (albeit pre-recorded) performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl and her stunning 1994 medley at the American Music Awards of “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” and “I Have Nothing.” Rickey Minor, who was her musical director for a period, including for the AMA telecast, is portrayed by Dave Heard.

But “I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s” primary source for details on Houston’s life was Clive Davis, who — as the founder of Arista Records — signed the then-teenaged Houston to his label in 1982. He spent two years helping her make and hone her debut album, then worked with her for the rest of her recording career.

But Davis, now 90, did not meet Houston until she was 17. He came in and out of her life in the years that followed, mostly in a professional capacity but also as a periodic father figure.

Davis co-produced “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” He is also a key supporting character, heroically portrayed by Stanley Tucci, in a film that presents Davis’ recollections as unquestioned fact.

Did the combination of these unusual factors mean Lemmons had an even more formidable balancing act to negotiate?

“You know, it was slightly tricky,” said the director, whose telling smile as she spoke suggested that “slightly” may be a diplomatic understatement.

Nafessa Williams and Naomi Ackie in "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody"
Nafessa Williams,left, and Naomi Ackie in “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” In the new film, Ackie portrays Houston, the vocal superstar who died in 2012. Williams plays the role of Robyn Crawford, whose 20-year love affair with Houston began when the two were teens but was largely kept under wraps.
(Emily Aragones/TriStar Pictures)

‘Not a documentary’

“I’d never done that before,” Lemmons continued. “I’d never worked with an estate (of a deceased star), where every recent memory and emotion about (Houston) and how her story should be told (was so strong).

“I thought that was tremendously interesting and enriching. Clive is a wealth of knowledge and he brought all that. And Rickey (Minor) ... was also a wealth of knowledge.”

Houston did not write a memoir. If she kept any diaries, they remain a secret. Where, then, does reality stop and poetic license begin in a film that includes many private conversations?

“Naomi and I both say this film is like a poem about Whitney. It’s not a documentary,” Lemmons stressed.

“It’s a movie that has emotional authenticity, even in terms of some of the dialogue, because we were working with people who remember the dialogue. But it’s not a documentary. It’s not really Whitney.

“But it gives you Naomi’s beautiful performance and the essence of who this woman she portrays is, her triumphs and struggles. I think (there is) emotional truth and power to her performance as Whitney.”

In a 1986 Union-Tribune interview, Houston said: “I wouldn’t want a man who was hard or obnoxious or rambunctious.” In hindsight, that seems like a prescient description of her future husband, Bobby Brown, whose tumultuous marriage to Houston generates some of the most tense moments in the film. They were married in 1992 and divorced in 2007. Their daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, died in 2015 at the age of 22.

“I really do believe that (Whitney) could be herself around Bobby,” Lemmons said. “She could be the girl from (New Jersey) who was a tomboy and liked to slouch in her sweats, and Bobby allowed her to be that. She could let her hair down and relax with him.”

Added Ackie: “I think it’s something about chemistry; you can’t control that sort of stuff. When you’re younger, my own impression, based on my own experience, is you say one thing about what you want and something else comes along and it makes sense.

“I don’t know what their relationship was. It’s very hard to look in on anyone’s relationship. But there was an obvious chemistry they had, and a joy, to be around each other at certain moments. And even then, that doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.”

If “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a box office hit, it should propel Ackie to major U.S. screen stardom. What is the most and least she hopes the film will achieve?

“The most is that people go and listen to Whitney’s music, enjoy it and reignite their love of Whitney. And the least is the same!” Ackie replied.

“I don’t know. I tend not to have as many expectations with something I’m a part of. I just hope people really enjoy it and see a lot of themselves in it.”

Ackie’s next two starring roles are in “Mickey 17,” a sci-fi feature directed by Oscar winner Bong Joon-ho, and “Pussy Island,” the directorial debut by actoe Zoë Kravitz. Is there another iconic singer Ackie hopes to one day portray in a film?

“I would like to help someone else play Ella Fitzgerald because I’m a huge fan of Ella’s,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be doing more roles where I play icons.”