Whitney Houston has already been the subject of two startling and effectively competing documentaries: Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? from 2017 and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, which was released a year later. Each in its own way was hamstrung by legal issues and family pressure, although Broomfield’s was perhaps the more judicious and insightful. Now here is a music biopic on very traditional lines from screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Kasi Lemmons: a smoothly watchable and well performed piece of work. It is almost a 144-minute narrative montage, and very avoidant on key issues – seemingly deferring to everyone who is still alive and suing.
British actor Naomi Ackie is very strong in the role of Houston (though with Whitney’s original singing voice dubbed). Houston was, of course, the glorious pop star who achieved mainstream white-crossover success but was crushed by sellout accusations, overwork, drug addiction, family strife and her volatile relationship with her notorious husband, Bobby Brown, and was tragically denied feelings for her best friend and assistant Robyn Crawford. She was found dead in the bathtub of her LA hotel room in 2012 at just 48 with evidence of cocaine use. Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters give powerhouse performances as Whitney’s gospel-singer mom Cissy and overbearing dad John; Nafessa Williams is very plausible as Whitney’s loyal but finally heartbreakingly slighted lost love Crawford, and Stanley Tucci scene-stealingly plays avuncular record boss Clive Davis.
The movie skates over the still fraught subject of who was supplying Houston with drugs and who therefore effectively enabled her sad death, and it simply does not mention that Houston’s grownup daughter herself died just three years later in a grimly similar way. Documentaries have tiptoed around the allegations that family members had to source drugs on tour; this film conveniently invents a shifty-looking white guy who asks Houston for her autograph and then cash and drugs are surreptitiously exchanged under cover of Houston getting pen and paper from her bag. Nor does this film mention the theory from Macdonald’s documentary that Houston was sexually abused as a child by a cousin.
It does however deliver the big scenes and big moments, especially her amazing performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. But a boilerplate music biopic like this usually runs in four stages: tough beginnings, success, crisis and redemptive comeback. Whitney’s life can’t give us the last of these and this film averts its gaze from the grim final reality of that hotel room in 2012, preferring to circle back in flashback to the triumph of Whitney’s performance at the 1994 American Music Awards, in which she sang her famous medley of I Loves You Porgy, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going and I Have Nothing.
The ultimate questions are not really answered: was Whitney a gay woman whose problems stemmed from being imprisoned in the closet? Was she a gospel/R&B genius whose agonies arose from being a pop princess for white audiences? Or was it simply that she had to use drugs to relieve the stress of a touring schedule she was forced into by her big-spending family retinue? It could be any of these, and the film touches gingerly on each possibility. But it’s a muscular, heartfelt performance from Ackie.
• I Wanna Dance With Somebody is released on 23 December in the US and 26 December in the UK and Australia.