A star rating of 4 out of 5.

“She is the true heartbeat of America,” announces one reporter in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, a biopic of tragic pop princess Whitney Houston. Starring British actress Naomi Ackie (The End of the F***ing World) as Houston, the film traces her rise to become this beloved, if sometimes controversial, heartbeat. The six-times Grammy winner and only artist ever to have seven consecutive number one singles on the US Billboard Top 100, beating The Beatles and Elvis Presley, Houston surely merits the big-screen treatment.

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It begins in earnest in New Jersey when her gospel singer mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) is schooling her in how to feel a melody. The time is 1983, and before long, she’s opening for her mother in Sweetwater’s, a club in New York City, singing The Greatest Love of All, a song she will ultimately take to the top of the charts. Attending is Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the founder of Arista Records. “I think I might have just heard the greatest voice of a generation,” he says, with not a shred of exaggeration.

The relationship between Houston and Davis is one of the film’s more touching elements; he says he has no interest in interfering in her private life and it’s heartening to see a portrayal of a music exec that doesn’t revolve around ego or exploitation. Houston’s other significant early relationship comes with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), a friend who becomes a lover and then an assistant, as Houston is advised to be seen in public with men.

Those who have seen the documentaries by Nick Broomfield (Whitney: Can I Be Me) and Kevin Macdonald (Whitney) will know what came next. After her early highs, culminating in working with Kevin Costner on 1992 hit movie The Bodyguard, Houston’s marriage to singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), the mismanagement of her finances by her father John (Clarke Peters) and an increasing addiction to drugs all contribute to her demise.

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This being rated 12A in the UK, you can expect a rather coy take on the seedier side of Houston’s life. Scenes of drug-taking are brief: whether it’s smoking marijuana or taking something stronger, the camera remains a discreet observer. Nonetheless, director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) does enough to hint at Houston’s substance abuse issues that would ultimately contribute to her early death, aged just 48. One scene, as the police arrest her whilst she's high and her young daughter looks on, is particularly upsetting.

In truth, I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn’t add any new revelations to the Houston story. We see her being booed at the Soul Train awards, when her music was accused in some quarters of “not being Black enough”. But, for example, it doesn’t go near the allegations that Dee Dee Warwick, Houston’s first cousin, molested her as a child, as expressed in Macdonald’s documentary. Perhaps there’s enough tragedy in Houston’s life already.

The film’s not-so-secret weapon is Ackie, who gives a stupendous performance as Houston (or ‘Nippy’, as her family call her). While the majority of the singing heard is Houston’s (which feels right, such is the vocal power of the woman nicknamed ‘The Voice), Ackie embodies the singer with real gutsiness. From her early enthusiasm, bouncing around the set of the video shoot for How Will I Know, to her later years as fans start walking out of her ‘comeback’ gigs, it’s a captivating turn.

While the film is conventionally told – compare it to Baz Luhrmann’s eye-catching Elvis – it’s nevertheless a respectful take. Somehow, Lemmons manages to end the film on a high note, which may seem strange given Houston’s tragic demise. It’s quite a feat, but one she just about pulls off, as the film celebrates her generational talent rather than dwell on the darkness. It feels like the right move for a film that truly honours Houston.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is released in cinemas on Monday 26th December 2022. Check out more of our Film coverage or visit our TV Guide and Streaming Guide to see what's on tonight.

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