On February 7, 1994, Whitney Houston took home seven of the eight awards she had been nominated for at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles. On the night, she performed the “impossible mix” of three huge songs: I Love You, Porgy, I’m Telling You I’m Not Going, and I Have Nothing.
All on his own that would challenge even the most accomplished of singers; Whitney Houston’, Jill’s voice, took them all at once, and made it sound effortless. It is considered by many to be the singer’s greatest ever performance, in a career filled with spine-tingling performances. Find it on the Internet and prepare to cry, without even thinking about the tragic ending of Houston’s story.
This is one of several high-profile offers that British star Naomi Ackie, of Walthamstow in east London, has considered for the biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which is set to see her skyrocket.
You might recognize Aki, 30, from her appearance in Lady Macbeth with Florence Pugh, the directorial debut of Idris Elba Yardi, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or Netflix’s Apocalypse, which she won. BAFTA in 2020. But as a relative newcomer, to helm a film at least, this is a huge role to play.
She was initially afraid of taking on the role, knowing the scrutiny that would inevitably come with her, but she had nothing to worry about. The mouth quivering, the timing of each breath, the control of the voice, the emotion that showed in Houston’s performance – she clearly did her homework.
“As soon as I got the part, I was like, OK, clean the roof,” she told Sky News. “Not that I have a huge amount of jobs coming up — I don’t want to make it sound like that — but it was definitely like, I don’t want to take any work, I just want to focus on this. And so it was about eight months of research and preparation and working with the movement coach. And accent coaches. I mean, the point is for you to practice so much that you’re just in your body, that you keep going and you’re not doing it. You don’t have to think about any of that.”
It’s the original recordings of Houston that you hear throughout the movie, so Ackie had to learn every beat and every breath in order to become the singer. And there are some scenes featuring unrecorded performances – Houston as a young woman rehearses with her mother Cissy Houston at church, and performs with her at the club where she is discovered by music executive Clive Davis. It is for those of you that the admiring Akie voices are heard.
As for other shows, among many hits including Greatest Love of All, Saving All My Love, How Will I Know, I Wanna Dance With Someone, I Will Always Love You, So Emotional and One Moment in Time, Ackie Still Has to Practice Her voice and vocals are Houston-like along with the playback on set, even without the audio recording, because the lip-synching, no matter how well done, just wouldn’t have cut it.
Aki says that studying Houston to perfect her mannerisms has been an emotional experience.
“Oh my God, there have been so many times I’ve been watching a live show and I’ve actually started crying,” she says. “Just out of pure joy watching her and there were just moments of real appreciation, especially when you start to learn the reasons behind some of her moves, the reasons why she talks the way she does. I just gained more and more respect… as he continued.”
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“I think I just heard the greatest voice of her generation.”
I Want to Dance with Someone charts Houston’s journey from a laughing tomboy nicknamed Nippy who sang in church in New Jersey, to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, plucked from obscurity by Davis, one of the film’s producers and main source of information about the star’s life.
Stanley Tucci, who plays the famous musical director, talks to him about his first impressions of Houston. “He knew. He knew as soon as he saw her… He said, ‘I think I just heard the greatest voice of her generation. ‘ And he was right. The way he talked about her, she still talks about her.” [is] With such reverence, respect, admiration and, of course, sadness, because, you know, it’s a tragic end for this amazing, not just life, but a wonderful person.
While music industry executives are often seen as ruthless, I want to dance with someone who presents Davis as an almost fatherly figure to young Houston.
“[He] I really cared for her and nurtured her and tried to get away [from her private life] As often as he can,” Tucci says. But, you know, eventually you become like a father or an uncle or something. And I think it’s a beautiful relationship. He’s a very interesting guy, Clive Davis…the fact that he was very interested in his artists, but still had this incredible business acumen. “
Working with the Houston family
The film covers Houston’s love story with friend-turned-assistant Robyn Crawford, and how she kept this aspect of her sexuality in check, as well as her turbulent marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown. It also depicts the drug addiction that led to her death in 2012, when she was found in a bathroom in Suite 434 of the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, just before a pre-Grammy party hosted by Davis that she was expected to attend.
In addition to Davis, the producers worked with Gary and Pat Houston, Whitney’s brother and sister-in-law (who was also her former manager), who understood the importance of showing different sides of the star’s life.
“It was very intimate, I guess that’s the word,” Aki says of talking with family members. “There was a sudden awareness that I was playing Whitney, but also inhabiting a dynamic with real people, that might emulate some of that with Whitney.
“So it was helpful, but also I was blown away by the generosity of sharing the space and holding the space for me while I was trying to figure it out. Pat Houston and Gary Houston and Clive Davis, all of these people were very much like support, but also very caring and intricate with the details they told me, as You know, because they want to celebrate Whitney, after all. And that’s what this movie aims to do.”
“Some things are important to be left to mystery”
The film shows you “not everything, of course, but it does show a lot,” Tucci says. “And it’s not easy to watch him sometimes…”
Aki intervenes, “but he balances it out.” “You know, you can’t have good without bad, and bad without good.”
Goodies include Houston’s performance of The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl in 1991, and her biggest hit, I Will Always Love You, in a show honoring South Africa’s Nelson Mandela in 1994. Ackie also handles dance moves in music videos including In that I Wanna Dance With Somebody and it’s Not right, but it’s okay, plus that famous chair scene, the light shining on her face in the dark, that’s very relatable to The Bodyguard.
We remember the incredible success of Houston — the singer who broke records for the Beatles (seven consecutive number ones in the US) and became the most awarded female artist of all time — as well as the demons that ultimately led to her demise.
While we all know how the movie ends, the film deals with Huston’s death delicately and in a particularly poignant way.
“I think, to be honest with you, had it been done any other way, I’m not sure if I’d be a part of it,” Aki says. “There’s a lot of dramatic irony about ceramics anyway. But actually, I think some things are important to let go of and really focus on the thing we want to focus on, which is the awesomeness of Whitney as a human being, was important.”
Whitney Houston: I want to dance with someone in the cinemas from Boxing Day
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