“This is what they want. America’s sweetheart.”
Genre I’d put it in: Powerfully Compelling Biopics
Release Date: 2022
Remake, Sequel, Based-On, or Original: Based on the life and career defining moments of Whitney Houston
Story: Whitney Elizabeth “Nippy” Houston grew up in New Jersey, but became a worldwide music sensation thanks to the power of her incredible voice. But who was she really? And how did she deal with the pressures of fame and her demanding father? (Spoiler: as well as any normal person thrust into fame at an early age could)
Gotta say: Dance does exactly what it sets out to do; remind you of exactly how talented Houston was as a singer. Thanks to an electric performance by Naomi Ackie as Houston, the film pulls you get you pulled in to the beauty and power of her performances. To be completely honest, I wasn’t expecting much when I readied myself for this screening. But I was pleasantly surprised by the way the creators put in the time and effort to make a visually beautiful, compelling film.
Why did I have such low expectations for Dance? Well, this biopic was approved by Houston’s family, and let’s just say there’s a history of familially- approved biopics that are puff pieces at best. But even with the blessings of her family, and her mentor Clive Davis, there’s no watering-down the truth here. Her bisexuality, the drug use that ultimately helped claim her life, her battles with her father; it’s all delved into with an honesty I found shocking, and refreshing. While folks of a certain age (early Millennials on up, hey there y’all) may wonder why Dance doesn’t mention [insert moment here], I’m not bothered. This film already clocks in at two and a half hours, and I didn’t need to see them re-create Being Bobby Brown to know that their marriage was rocky. The film shows that well enough without that bit. And so on with other issues in Houston’s life. If you’re not getting the gist, you’re not paying attention. Yeah, I said it.
Director Kasi Lemmons mantra must be “show, don’t tell”, because Dance doesn’t take any expository dumps on the audience, instead showing viewers how Houston’s constant need to push herself affected her health (shout out to the makeup department for telegraphing those highs and lows), and, by skillful editing, pulling us all into Houston’s whirlwind of a life. There are several moments in Dance where the edits jump from place to place, moment to moment, all the while centering on a beleaguered, drained, superstar. The jumps from performances, to her wedding, to the birth of Christina, are particularly powerful. (And don’t get me started on seeing an older Christina later in the film; my heart absolutely shattered at those bittersweet moments.)
Then there are the performances. Lemmons and Davis rightly decided that nobody could ever take the place of Houston when it comes to vocal chops, so Ackie lip-synchs to Houston’s original vocals. And damn, Ackie can deliver. The way she’s able to emote, and echo Houston’s way of moving when she sang, is tribute rather than mimicry. Those moments, from blocking to cinematography, costuming – OMG those fantastic costumes – hair, makeup, and Ackie herself? I sometimes forgot that I wasn’t watching the real deal. Just for a millisecond, a flash of remembrance and joy. Which, I believe, is what Dance wants to leave you with. As the end credits rolled, her “Don’t Cry For Me” played, as a montage of video clips and photos of the star appeared on screen. That’s the kind of beautiful farewell I’d like to think someone as genuinely kind-hearted as Houston was, would have wanted. I’d see this film again, spending my own hard-earned on a re-watch. That’s the highest praise I can give. Happy Merry, y’all.
#Protip: Wanna see that incredible AMA performance that is the climax of the film? Here ya go.