Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody caught me by surprise. I’ll be the first to admit that musical biopics don’t do much for me, but there are rare, recent exceptions that have shattered the tropes I dislike in musical biopics and draw a portrait of their artists in a thoughtful and emotional light, such as Dexter Fletcher‘s Rocketman and Baz Luhrmann‘s Elvis. I was also skeptical of how parts of Houston’s life would be handled in a way that didn’t feel like reading parts of a Wikipedia summary, which was my biggest problem with Bohemian Rhapsody.
But I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a truly magnificent portrait of “The greatest Voice of her generation” and brilliantly captures her spirit in a way no other filmmaker could’ve done. As I mention in the audio interview, found below, I started to get emotional quite early in Kasi Lemmons‘ biopic on the tumultuous life of Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie), where she sings “The Greatest Love of All” in front of Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), seemingly discovering a once-in-a-generation talent, and never fully recovered. By the movie’s end, where she sings her medley at the 1994 American Music Awards, “I Loves You, Porgy/And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going/I Have Nothing,” I was an absolute wreck. I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but Ackie’s towering performance, alongside Barry Ackroyd‘s sweeping cinematography and Daysha Broadway‘s intricate editing, was the likely cause.
While speaking to Broadway on Zoom, she explained that she was initially skeptical about how the biopic would be handled before meeting with director Kasi Lemmons.
“There’s a lot of Whitney stuff out there, and I’m a big fan of hers, too. I wanted to make sure that, if something was happening, I wondered, “if I can be a part of it, I want to help tell the story in the right way, or what I think is the right way. ” I didn’t know Whitney, but with that intention, I would love to have a chance at doing that. And then hearing that Kasi Lemmons was a part of it, meeting with her, and understanding her intentions behind doing the film made me want to be involved even more.”
One of Broadway and Lemmons’ primary goals in the editing room was “to make sure the story is being told in a way that is not just efficient, but emotional. We wanted to connect the audience to Whitney personally. When they shot the film, there was a bit more emphasis on spectacle, not that there isn’t any spectacle in the film, because there are tons, and it’s beautifully shot. The movie originally starts with the Super Bowl, and then you do a flashback to her early life. Starting with the AMAs and bookending the film that way are things we figured out together during post-production. We got in there after the fact and said, “Okay, what we have is excellent. How do we improve it?”‘
The editor also explained that they were trying to hold on to as much emotional impact as possible by briefly starting with the AMAs and only coming back to it during the final minutes of the film:
“Every Friday, during the Director’s Cut, we would screen it in the screening room to understand how the movie was feeling all the way through. There were times when we brought up the AMAs more often throughout the film, but we were like, “No, no, no. Just forget about it until the end.” When we bring the audience back to where we started, she sings as Whitney says she wants to start again. We let her start again by bringing back the AMAs, which would be the most emotionally impactful part we could structure at that moment.”
Starting and ending the film with the AMAs also helped shape the rest of how the movie would be edited, even if it was initially starting during Houston’s performance at Super Bowl XXV:
“The movie started with the Super Bowl. She’s warming up her voice for the national anthem. Then we flashed to jets. It’s a big, great Hollywood opening, but it also confused our test audiences. A lot of people were saying, “Is this Top Gun? What movie am I watching? Did I walk into the right theater?” We didn’t want people to be confused. Once we decided that this movie would start with her voice, we wanted the audience to know that this story is about love. To his credit, Denis O’Sullivan, one of the film’s producers, was in the editing bay while we were trying to figure out the new opening. I had just pulled moments from the AMAs to build the sequence you see in the movie, but not for the opening. I was grabbing shots of the band and the crowd. But Denis was like, “what if she says something, and it just fades to black?” Whitney says, “We’re going do a medley for you. It’s about love.” She’s telling you what the movie is about. It’s about love. Once we did that, I knew what the movie was about, and we can now frame the film around this theme and notion. When we get back, I know the film leads up to one of her most iconic moments. She has many, but it’s the most show-stopping, unbelievable, impossible thing she achieved. Everything after that was informed by that theme and that idea that we would end with some triumphant moment with her.”
And in editing that show-stopping moment, Broadway talked about how she created the sequence’s more emotional moments by sitting with Houston as she performed the best set of her career:
“There was a moment where she’s about to hit this note after singing for eight minutes. She’s about to hit this note and looks back at Rickey Minor [Dave Heard]. He gives her a little nod, and then she hits it. That harkens back to their conversation, where he tells her that she is the only one who can do it; “You can take a little breath after the me.” I wanted her to take a breath after she said me. I told the sound team after she hit that last note if we could add some breath on the mic because Rickey said she could take a little breath after that. I was looking at that moment in terms of those story beats. Everything else was about keeping it in sync. Naomi was great at doing that because she was singing live. Those veins popped out of her neck, and she felt like she was really in sync with the songs because she was singing that day. I was also really focused on shots of her mom [Tamara Tunie] that take me out every time I see it when her mom looks at her and blows her a kiss. I wanted all those emotional beats, where we cut to Robyn [Nafessa Williams] watching her, cuts to her daughter, and Whitney telling her daughter she loves her. That was the main focus for me. Everything else fell into place. I was enjoying it. I was dancing in my office, cutting that mentally because it was just a beautiful moment. Naomi was on fire, Kasi was on fire, and Barry’s footage was amazing. It was so great to see. “
You can listen to our full conversation below and see Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody in theatres everywhere.
[Some quotes were edited for length and clarity]