“We sought to make I Wanna Dance with Somebody a rich, beautiful, moving, and very human tribute to a great talent – one of the greatest we will ever see,” says director Kasi Lemmons, who helms the film, joining forces with much of the creative team that brought the worldwide hit Bohemian Rhapsody to the screen, including screenwriter/producer Anthony McCarten.
The film began when 90-year-old record executive and Producer Davis had a chance meeting with screenwriter/producer Anthony McCarten, fresh off the worldwide success of the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.
“Over dinner in a New York restaurant, Clive proposed I consider Whitney as my next film project, promising that he could facilitate the introductions to the Houston estate that would be necessary to unlock access to the music, without which no story about a musician is worth undertaking,” says McCarten. “At first, I wasn’t sure there was a fresh, untold story of Whitney to be had, but the next day, Clive showed me a video of Whitney performing the ‘Impossibly Medley,’ and I was saw what the movie could be.”
McCarten was, of course, astounded to be reminded of the master class in voice control that is Houston’s performance at the 1994 AMAs. But he was concerned about presenting Houston’s story as a biopic. Isn’t Whitney Houston’s story a tragedy? But after a second meeting with Davis, McCarten turned his thinking around. “If we only judge artists by how long they live, Shakespeare’s life is a tragedy,” McCarten says. “Whitney’s life is a triumph. She gave us these extraordinary moments, these great performances. That story has not been told.”
“She has a complicated story, in the way that all humans are complicated. We can relate to her and the struggles she went through, the pressures she faced, and we get to understand her,” Lemmons.
“Whitney Houston was probably the greatest contemporary female musical artist of all time,” says Clive Davis, who should know. The 90-year-old record executive, who has played an integral role in the careers of such luminaries as Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Sly and the Family Stone, Billy Joel, Chicago, Pink Floyd, and countless others, puts Houston in the highest echelon – and says that’s why her music continues to stay with us. “Her ability to do up-tempo, coupled with the versatility of incredible music voice control power on the ballads, made her the ultimate pop singer, the ultimate R&B singer. That’s why she stood out in all those years, and why we will be remembering her.”
Audiences will have the chance to remember and relive Houston and her incredible Voice in theaters with the release of I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the music biopic that will provide Whitney fans with previously unknown insight into the icon’s life and work. It is both a celebration of the triumphs of her life and a clear-eyed look at the tragedies that took her from us far too soon.
“There’s a celebration to be had about Whitney,” says Naomi Ackie, who embodies the icon in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. “We can look back now and know that there was no one else like her. It’s been over a decade and there’s still no one else like her.”
For Houston’s fans, Whitney’s story has never truly been told
They are well acquainted with the plethora of material that has been produced that purportedly “tells all,” including the 2015 telefilm and the 2018 documentary, but both of these projects profoundly disappointed the fans and the people closest to her. Neither examines or celebrates the most important part of Whitney’s life – her music – and instead, both focus on the salacious headlines that obscured the real Whitney.
With I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Davis says, “The purpose of this film is to show the full Whitney. It certainly was my mission to make sure that we show the life of a great music star and what made her special, unique. Our intent was not to whitewash the lethal impact of drugs – how they brought a unique person to a premature, tragic ending. But it is also to show the great talent, why she was beloved and an unparalleled talent that affected the world over.”
In this way, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is meant not only to be a chance for fans to relive the icon’s life and music, but also to give Whitney’s point of view, told by the people who knew her best. “We had an opportunity to create the signature biography of Whitney Houston,” says producer Matt Jackson. “Because we were working with Clive, as well as Gary and Pat Houston, Whitney’s brother and sister-in-law, we could tell her story with authenticity – we had access to a level of understanding and details that we just wouldn’t know if we were making this film without the cooperation of her family.”
Plus, for producer Denis O’Sullivan, a biopic provides a very different experience from a documentary. “The movie gives Whitney’s life an experiential, cinematic treatment,” he says. “In a way, the documentary gave us a lot of freedom – we could explore whatever aspect of Whitney’s life we felt best told her story. At the same time, we had a huge sense of responsibility – to Whitney’s family and fans – to make a movie that would have audiences feeling like we did her justice.”
Because I Wanna Dance with Somebody would bring together the various stakeholders that control the rights to Houston’s music, the filmmakers felt they had a special opportunity to make a film that showcased the unique talent of The Voice
“The documentaries and the books cannot give you the music,” says McCarten. “If you try to tell Whitney’s story without the music, it’s like a joke without a punchline. And despite the ending, Whitney’s story is inspirational.”
Having collaborated with McCarten on Bohemian Rhapsody, producer Denis O’Sullivan was very familiar with McCarten’s process of working the songs into the material of a life. “The thing that Anthony does so brilliantly is he always finds the songs that help tell the story – in Anthony’s hands, the songs underscore the emotions and events that the person is experiencing,” he says. “In that way, we were able to work in all of the songs that were the key, centerpiece songs that would need to be in this telling of her life.”
At the same time, if they were going to embark on this journey the filmmakers needed – and would receive – assurances that they would have the freedom to tell Whitney’s whole story – the good, the bad, and the ugly. “We want to prop up our heroes, put them on a pedestal,” says Kalligheri. “Whitney definitely faced demons in her life. When you’re living on the road, doing 70 tour dates a year, not sleeping, just trying to survive, it’s very easy to fall into the traps to unwind.” For the filmmakers, it was important to tell this part of the story as well – to tell it with empathy and nuance, but to tell it straight and not flatter or pander. Assured by Houston’s family and estate that they could tell the whole story, the resulting film pulls no punches.
The primary source for details on Whitney’s life was Clive Davis himself. In collaboration, the two had a magical partnership. “We had seven number-ones in a row from the first two albums. That broke the all-time record,” says Davis. “I said to her, ‘Whitney, this is historic. Tell me you’re pinching yourself, because otherwise I won’t know that you know how special this is.’ And every time we would kid around, she would actually pinch herself.”
“The song selection process was two people – Whitney and me,” says Davis. “Whitney listened to everything. She knew every arranger, every producer. She listened to the radio 24/7. I was looking for songs that were special, that I felt could be a big hit. The traditional thought was to look for a major R&B record with the potential of crossing over into pop, but I didn’t look for that. I wanted a great song.”
For example, Davis cites “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” “The demo sounds like Olivia Newton-John could do it,” says Davis. “But as my ears were getting more and more refined, I knew that Whitney would bring some heat to it.”
But if Davis found the songs, it was Houston interpreted them through her singing. “She didn’t write the songs, but she was picking them – and picking them at a time when they would resonate with what she was experiencing at that point in her life,” says Kalligheri. “It speaks to how true the music had to be for her. And that’s why in this movie, the music matches the storyline of her life. You see that especially with ‘Why Does It Hurt So Bad’; Clive wanted her to sing that song earlier in her career, when she was confident and sure of herself – she had never had her heart broken. She knew later when she was ready. She was ready to let the hurt out, and she did.”
Another example: in showcasing Houston’s legendary rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ Lemmons had a wide variety of options to choose from. Narratively, the choice became to intercut the song in montage – cutting between Houston’s performance at the Concert for a New South Africa, and her marriage to Bobby Brown, which many in Houston’s life question in the film.
And if there is a theme that runs through Houston’s work – a theme that provides a natural narrative arc for the film – it is the idea of the search for family, the search for home, the yearning for the deep connection that comes with love and affection – the Whitney Houston who deeply wanted to dance with somebody who loved her. “She’s just a girl from the neighborhood who wants to be loved, wants to have a home, wants to have people who care about her and love her, and wants to share her talent with the world,” says Kalligheri. That’s what we hear in her music, and that’s what she’s searching for in her life.”
The track suit from the Super Bowl was not the only outfit that Jones’s team would recreate. The team recreated Houston’s bolero jacket from the Arista Records 15th Anniversary concert, where she performed “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”; the shiny, silvery, textured dress and bow from the candy-colored music video for “How Will I Know”; the dress that Naomi Ackie calls her “Queen Nefertiti” look to perform “I Will Always Love You” at the Concert for a New South Africa; the form-fitting gown with the crystal-studded sleeves Houston wore at the AMAs for the “Impossible Medley”; and countless others.
Choosing the Actress to Portray Whitney Houston
Playing Whitney Houston is British actress Naomi Ackie. “I don’t even know how to describe it – Whitney has just always been there, always so present in my life,” she says. “Every wedding, every funeral, every christening, birthday, karaoke, when I’m on my own, when I’m with friends. I can’t even remember the first time I listened to her music – that’s not even part of the conversation. She’s just always present.”
Because of that, when Ackie got the call inviting her to audition, she says, she was overwhelmed by the idea of playing the icon – until everything fell into place. “I was immediately intimidated by even attempting to try it. It was just terrifying. Every time I had another round of auditions and it got closer, it still felt strange,” she says. “And then, for the final audition – it was Halloween, I was in full costume as Whitney, with the suit and the hair, singing ‘I Will Always Love You,’ and something just clicked. I suddenly understood – I could tell this story.”
The thing that clicked for Ackie is a stripping away of the legend and a focus on who Houston was as a performer. “She just wanted to sing,” says Ackie. “I understand that, because I have the same thing – with acting. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. I also saw that she could be a goofball and be very silly, like me, and combine that with a real respect for her craft and a technical ability, which is always my goal, too.”
For Ackie, playing Whitney Houston was something of a life-changing event. “There was a power in playing Whitney that I didn’t anticipate,” she says. “I’m not a take-it-home-with-you kind of actor. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ I’m all feelings, and I leave it at the door. But with Whitney, it was something different. I stepped into my own power in a way that I hadn’t been asked to do before. I wasn’t just playing Whitney Houston anymore.”
One of the reasons the filmmakers cast Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston is that in addition to Ackie’s tremendous acting talent, she is an accomplished singer. To perform as Houston would require the actress to train her voice and actually sing, as Houston, along with the playback on set – even if no sound would be recorded – because, as Kalligheri notes, there’s no faking real singing. “You need to see the face, the energy, the chest expand, the vocal cords stretch, the throat and the air and the breaths coming in and out,” he says. “Naomi has a great voice and sang her butt off on every song.”
“Naomi was meticulously rehearsed,” adds Lemmons. “She knew Whitney’s every breath – which is a difference in how Whitney sings versus how Naomi sings. She had to sing like Whitney, breathe like Whitney, and pull it off, point perfect, take after take.”
Ackie admits with modesty that no matter how good she is, there is only one Voice. “I can hold a tune, but I’m not a singer,” she says. “To be a singer takes a certain level of personality in your voice, and I just don’t really have that. So in those moments when I sang her songs, I asked John to crank the music up as loud as it could go – it was rattling off the walls – and I could perform.”
In addition, there are performances in the film for which there exists no recording of Houston singing. For these, audiences will hear Ackie singing “Guide Me, O My Great Jehovah”; singing background with Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) at Sweetwater’s; and performing vocal drills with Cissy in the church.
There is one other Ackie performance, which Warhurst worked with Kasi Lemmons to create as a story point. In the film, when Clive Davis arrives at Sweetwater’s to see Whitney perform, Whitney is suddenly pushed on stage, without warning, and expected to perform “Greatest Love of All.” The character of Whitney is nervous, and at first, her singing is unpolished and rough.
However – as we all know – Houston’s recording of “Greatest Love of All” is anything but unpolished and rough. To underscore the story point, Lemmons asked for a performance of the song that begins with Ackie singing nervously, in character. “Then, midway through the song, she finds her confidence, her voice. She becomes Whitney,” explains Lemmons. At that point, Warhurst segues the audio into Houston’s masterful original recording. “And from that moment on, for the rest of the film,” Lemmons continues, “it’s all Whitney.”
As an actor, director, writer, producer, librettist, mentor, and educator, KASI LEMMONS (Director / Executive Producer) is one of the most powerful voices of our time. Her first feature, Eve’s Bayou, was recently selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. In 2019, her fifth film, Harriet, starring Cynthia Erivo, was nominated for two Oscars®. Her libretto for the opera “Fire Shut Up In My Bones,” composed by Terence Blanchard, opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2021-2022 season and was nominated for a 2023 Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording. She is developing a series, “Ring Shout,” based on the novel by P. Djéli Clark. Lemmons is an Arts Professor in the Graduate Film Department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Anthony McCarten (Screenplay by / Producer) is a four-time Academy Award® nominee and BAFTA-winning screenwriter and producer. A true master of the biopic, McCarten has continually proven his innate ability to craft stories about a wide array of notable figures in a profoundly intimate way that reveals the most human, relatable sides of their lives. Impressively, McCarten’s last four produced screenplays have garnered three Academy Award® wins for each of their respective lead actors, two Academy Award® nominations for leads in the fourth film, and three Best Picture nominations.
McCarten’s previous credits include writing and producing The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne as Professor Stephen Hawking, writing and producing Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Sir Winston Churchill, writing Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, and writing The Two Popes, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. His non-streaming films have earned a combined $1.2 billion at the worldwide box office.
McCarten is also an acclaimed playwright. His Neil Diamond musical “A Beautiful Noise” and his Andy Warhol/Jean-Michel Basquiat drama “The Collaboration” open on Broadway in December 2022. The latter comes off of a brilliant run at London’s Young Vic Theatre, and stars Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope. He is also a novelist, having written nine novels that have been translated into 14 languages. His latest novel, a high-tech thriller titled Going Zero, is due from HarperCollins Publishing in 2023.