‘This movie is a correction’: Whitney Houston’s biography aims to change the narrative

meIn the 10 years since Whitney Houston lost her life, four films have attempted to tell her story. In quick succession, we got an unauthorized documentary, an approved film, a Lifetime TV shoot, as well as a movie that focused squarely on her relationship with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina. According to Anthony McCarten, who wrote the first big-budget Hollywood biopic of the star, I Want to Dance with Somebody, these films all have one thing in common. “They are obsessed with her mistakes,” he told The Guardian. “They were all very exciting.”

At the same time, it is believed that they accurately reflected the larval view many have long held of the star. “When people hear the name ‘Whitney Houston’ they say ‘tragic’,” McCarten said. “It’s a universal perception. In some ways, this movie is a corrective to that.”

It is something that many may approach with a little skepticism. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is the brainchild of the Houston estate, which includes her sister-in-law and enforcer Pat Houston, as well as the company that controls major parts of her music rights, Primary Wave, and the man who signed, some say, her look, Clive Davis. Although they all endorsed the final product, McCarten strongly disputes the assumption that it led to any dilution or censorship of his work. “I told them, ‘You will not have formal control over this,'” he said. “I’m not doing this to please anyone. The audience can smell the rat if it’s a piece of puff.”

In fact, the film’s director, Casey Lemons, said there were scenes in the movie that definitely made the drug uncomfortable. “One of the things that was most challenging about this was dealing with real people, with real feelings, memories and perspectives,” she said. “They approved of the script but seeing it as a movie was something different.”

While the film’s final cut includes some of the bleaker, or more controversial, details of Huston’s story – certain things were actually made more More blunt than ever – the filmmakers admit their primary goal was to make the film a celebration. “I wanted to focus on her tremendous accomplishments,” McCarten said.

To this end, much of the film focuses on her music-making and performance. At the same time, this music sounds completely different than it did in studio recordings, in live concerts, or in TV performances. Everything is optimized and amplified to take advantage of the Dolby 5.1 sound system in modern cinema. The result will thunder through you. All the voices come from Houston, but the breath of the actress who plays her, British star Naomi Ackie, is masterfully combined to make the physical performance palpable. “It should sound like she’s singing live,” Lemons said. “And Naomi knew every soul of the hymns.”

The depth of those breaths, and the subtlety with which Houston used them, are two elements McCarten considers key to her brilliance. “Any musician who stands behind her while she performs will often notice that this little frame of hers can magically expand,” he said. “She was breathing with her entire ribcage. They say whales can do that when they plunge miles under the ocean. They expand their ribs to contain enormous volumes.” of air. The way Whitney could carry that weight of air, along with the strength with which she could sustain high notes and add vibrato, was amazing.”

Of course, the high drama of her music found a mirror in the constant tug between the triumphs and tribulations of her life. One controversial aspect presented more candidly and privately than in any previous portrayal is her relationship with friend and business partner Robyn Crawford, who is not involved in the film. Whereas previous works strongly implied a lesbian relationship, the new film makes them physically explicit. According to Lemons, part of that has to do with details in Crawford’s memoirs, which were published in 2019. Changing public attitudes toward sex have also played a role, McCarten said. “We live in a more tolerant time,” he said. By contrast, he said, “Opening up in the ’80s was very difficult.”

The pain of this ruling in the film is due to the strongly disapproving attitude to the relationship displayed by Whitney’s father and her mother, Cissy Houston. Lemmons and McCarten believe that if Houston emerges in an era of non-binary pop stars like Janelle Monae and Demi Lovato, she can be completely outspoken about her relationship with Crawford. Regarding the way Houston viewed her sexuality, Lemons believes she was “flexible”, while McCarten chooses to describe her as “bi-curious—at least in her younger days”.

The futility of putting one label on Houston’s sexuality was something she and Davis shared. In one of the scenes of the film, it appears that he reveals to her a male lover. While Davis did not speak about such things publicly at the time, he did write about them in his 2013 memoir. “It was important to Clive to put that in the movie,” Lemmons said. “He and Whitney had something in common.”

Nafeesa Williams and Naomi Aki in I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Photo: Landmark Media/Alami

One sexual aspect notably absent from the film is an assertion in the 2018 documentary by Kevin MacDonald that the singer was molested by a family friend when she was young. Although the estate authorized this film, McCarten said they were “not very happy” with the outcome. “They felt Kevin had overstepped my deal,” he said. “The accusation in essence was not supported by anything (Whitney) had said to anyone else. For Kevin, it would have been shaky to have a documentary film based on him. I would have needed a great deal of supporting evidence to include that.”

The new film is more direct in dealing with the issues in Houston’s life surrounding race. It recreates the infamous scene at the Soul Train Awards where she is booed and shows a scene during a radio interview on Station Black in which the popular DJ of the day echoed a common complaint: that her music was “too white”. McCarten’s program stated Houston’s advocacy of the racism inherent in this view with correct clarity. At the same time, these accusations deeply wounded her. “To have people call you ‘Oreo,’ it really hurts,” Lemons said. “I certainly hope the conversation is different now.”

The lack of nuance in Houston’s day underscores the pain she experienced at falling into the wrong line of assumptions about both race and gender. Even worse, she had fights within her family, most notably with her father, who served as her manager. Shortly before his death, he sued her for $100 million. In the movie, he is depicted as treating her more like a financial asset than a human being. “I had a personal experience with John that shook me,” Lemons said. “He was the one who talked to me about ‘the brand.’ That was very chilling. This was his daughter he was talking about!”

McCarten has a different view. He described John Huston as “a villain with a very small ‘v’. Even at the end, when he was suing Whitney, he had a rationale in mind for it.” He put this record deal together for the sake of it and thought the money was being wasted by Whitney and Bobby. He did a lot for his daughter.”

Regardless, the singer never made peace with her father and did not attend his funeral.

The portrayal of Bobby Brown, while, at times, gruff, elevates the blame some people place on him for Houston’s physical decline. In one scene, Whitney directly tells him that she was using drugs before she met him. Like Crawford, Brown was not involved in the film.

Despite the film’s many somber moments, it achieves its goal of highlighting Houston’s brilliance above all else, bolstered by the fact that its creators had much more access to her music than previous filmmakers did. The film finds its pinnacle in recreations of historical shows, such as its outstanding display of The Star-Spangled Banner at the Superbowl. “She was the architect of this performance,” McCarten said. “She slowed the whole thing down to give herself space to do her thing. And she certainly did.”

Another moment of standing ovation and cheer arrives in a scene depicting the Concert for the New South Africa, which was the first show to take place in that post-apartheid country. “Whitney knew how to make a performance speak for the moment,” said Lemmons. McCarten added, “When she sang I Will Always Love You on this show, she extrapolated that from someone else’s love story to a love of freedom.”

It all topped off a performance from the 1994 American Music Awards where she combined three terrible songs to create a compilation the filmmakers dubbed “The Impossible Medley.” They include I Loves You, Porgy (from Porgy and Bess), I’m Telling You I’m Not Going (from Dreamgirls) and her own song, I Have Nothing. Houston compares their singing together to “climbing Mount Everest without oxygen”. “You’ll sing it all thinking it’s as good as it gets,” said Lemmons. “Then go up.”

Given the strength of such performances, as well as the love Houston has been able to experience in her life, McCarten refuses to cast her as a tragic figure. “If you view life as flowers, at one end of the scale, and a pile of shit, on the other, what weighs the most?” He said. Whitney’s life was enormous, so far More flowers.”

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