“Great singing comes from three places: the head, the heart and the gut” Cissy Houston tells her daughter Whitney in the opening scene of the new film Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
The biopic currently showing in cinemas in Nairobi, comes a decade after the death of Houston, chronicling her phenomenal rise from a prodigious young talent to become arguably the greatest singer of her generation.
It covers the many triumphs in her life, notably seven straight US No 1 singles beating the record held by the Beatles, but this is no sugar-coated story. Even though the project was done with the cooperation of Houston’s estate; the film does not shy away from her turbulent personal life, her sexuality, and the well-documented battle with drugs and alcohol.
The 31-year-old British actress Naomi Ackie who plays Whitney Houston revealed in a recent interview with Sky News in the UK that it took her eight months of research and preparation for the role of one of the most extraordinary stars of the 20th century.
The film is produced by legendary music executive Clive Davis who discovered Houston as a “vocally ambitious” young singer and launched her on the path to stardom by signing her to Arista Records in 1983 (Houston’s brother Gary and sister-in-law Pat Houston lent their support to the production on behalf of her estate).
“I think I might just have heard the greatest voice of her generation,” gushes Davis, played by Stanley Tucci, after watching a young Whitney for the first time, performing a stirring version of The Great Love of All at a nightclub.
The involvement of Davis enabled the filmmakers to access the original recordings of Houston’s hits and the accompanying soundtrack to the film Whitney New, Classic and Reimagined features 35 songs, including a rare live recording of Don’t Cry for Me that Davis calls a “surprise discovery”.
It is the actual voice of Houston that you hear on the songs throughout the film, except for a few scenes featuring performances for which no recordings exist. Acke still had to train her voice to sing as Houston on playback for timeless hits like Greatest Love of All, Saving All My Love for You, I Will Always Love You, I’m Every Woman and I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
The film recreates the big moments in her stellar career, like the memorable performance of the US national anthem The Star-Spangled Banner backed by the Florida Orchestra at the 1991 Super Bowl. In 1994, she performed at The Concert for a New South Africa in honour of Nelson Mandela’s victory in the country’s first all-race elections after the end of apartheid.
Another riveting moment comes at the close of the film with Houston’s breathtaking medley of two classic songs I Love You, Porgy, And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going and along with her own song I Have Nothing at the 1994 American Music Awards.
When she tells Davis about her interest in acting, he presents her with a script about a singer who has a complicated relationship with her bodyguard. That film debut in The Bodyguard was also the moment when Houston transformed an old country song by Dolly Parton I Will Always Love You into one of the most powerful ballads of our time.
The triumphs came with lots of personal drama and to the credit of the filmmakers they do not gloss over these episodes in the life of Whitney Houston. Her romantic relationship with her friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, and the complicated ties with her father who also served as her manager. He referred to her as “the brand” and before his death in 2003 sued her for $100 million for breach of contract (She skipped his funeral).
Her turbulent marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown and the struggle with substance abuse are well-documented. In a scene from the film Clive Davis flat out tells Houston that it is time for her to get into rehab. “For you to affect your voice is criminal…this is a matter of life and death,” he says.
Neither does the film omit the tough times in Houston’s career, like the criticism from some in the African American community that she didn’t sound “black enough”, or later in her career when the artist once referred to as “The Voice” just could not hold a note anymore.
Her death in 2012 at the age of 48 after drowning in a bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards marked the end of a life characterised by genius, but tormented by personal flaws.
The film is part of a project that aims to keep the legacy of Whitney Houston alive, with a planned Broadway show about her life, a gospel album of unreleased songs, and a range of makeup products.