Revisiting Whitney Houston’s Life—Triumphs and Tragedy—for I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Like Whitney Houston’s music career, the new biopic about Houston, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, began with Clive Davis.
About eight years after Houston’s tragic death, an accidental drowning with atherosclerotic heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors, the renowned music producer met with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, The Two Popes), who had recently tackled Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s life story in Bohemian Rhapsody. Davis had singlehandedly shaped Houston’s career—which surpassed the Beatles’ record with seven consecutive number one hits and exceeded sales of more than 200 million records. And as he approached the age of 90, Davis wanted to rescue Houston’s legacy from the salacious narratives about drug use and toxic relationships that had plagued her final years. He offered McCarten Houston’s complete music library to intersperse throughout the film, as well as introductions to her friends and family.
The attempt at image management was not surprising, given Davis’s relationship with Houston. Explains McCarten to Vanity Fair, “He actively participated in choosing every song she sang, commissioned music for her, and marketed her. He was there when she was a teenager, and he was there delivering the eulogy when she passed. There was something paternal in there. There was something deeply respectful, as well. He said she always showed up dressed to the nines whenever he saw her. She made an effort. She wanted to be at her best for Clive.”
The relationship is recreated in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, with Naomi Ackie playing Houston and Stanley Tucci playing Davis, who is a producer of the film. As portrayed in the biopic, it is the one friendship of Houston’s that holds steady throughout her staggering success and struggles.
“He told her when they started working together that he didn’t get involved in the personal lives of his artists,” says McCarten. “But he broke that promise.…He became instrumental when she was in trouble, telling her to go to rehab. He was very protective of all of her. They really loved each other.”
There are interesting insights into Houston’s character sprinkled throughout the film, gleaned from McCarten’s conversations with the singer’s friends and family members. After signing with Arista Records at age 19 and ending her romantic relationship with best friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), Houston undergoes a fairy-tale makeover to become America’s white-friendly pop princess. There is one occasion in the film for which Houston refuses to dress up in pop-star drag, though: her iconic 1991 performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl.
In the movie, she waves away a rack of gowns presented to her and sticks with her white tracksuit, headband, and short hair. “Let me be me once,” she says. The detail came from Houston’s hairstylist, says McCarten, adding, “You could make a whole movie just about Whitney’s wigs and weaves. She had hundreds of looks.”