ADDICTED IN FILM
WEEKEND MOVIE PICK
I Wanna' Dance With Somebody
Now in Theaters
Last week I got a call from a colleague of mine who told me that the Tony and Olivier Award-winning producer of the new Whitney Houston film, Christina Papagjika, had read my book and wanted to connect to see what I thought of her new film, I WANNA’ DANCE WITH SOMEBODY. I hadn't been to an actual movie theater for a long time, and L.A. was having one of its rare rainy days, so I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to see the film at a local gigaplex with all the bells and whistles.
And wow, I'm really glad that I did. Not only is it a heartfelt portrayal of an amazing woman with an astonishing talent, it’s also an important contribution to the national conversation about how addiction touches many lives - even those of the rich and famous. As I argue in my book ADDICTED IN FILM, witnessing the emotional and mental health challenges of people in the public eye can teach us a lot about the nature of addiction, and how it never discriminates. In a way, Whitney’s struggles are my struggles, are your struggles, are everybody’s struggles. We learn from each others' struggles.
Like many of you, I knew quite a lot about Ms. Houston’s life before I watched the film. The sudden fame, the adulation, the music and movie superstardom - but also her drug use, her marriage to Bobby Brown, and her tragic death from a heart attack alone in a bathtub just before a performance that could have heralded her comeback. But none of that mattered to me as I sat in the first row of the AMC with a big bowl of popcorn, ready to just connect with Whitney Houston, the human being. A person, like any person, who experienced the highs and lows of life, and struggled to make sense of it all. And sadly - when it didn’t make sense - found refuge in drugs.
Naomi Ackie renders an astonishing performance as Houston. From the first instant she opened her mouth to sing, I forgot that she was an actress and that I was watching a movie. Ackie lip-syncs Houston’s songs so perfectly you feel like you’re hearing The Voice for the first time. Her rendition of Greatest Love of All performed on the fabled night that record producer Clive Davis discovered her, literally brought me to tears. I hadn’t cried in a film like that since Bambi lost his mother. Ackie’s other performances in the film were no less powerful, and I found myself singing along. (Get this: The other people with me in the theater started to sing along with me!)
Apart from enjoying the performances, I also wanted to pay close attention to the way that the filmmakers handled Houston’s struggles with drug addiction. It’s an aspect of Houston’s life that many people would like to forget, but nobody should ignore. In this respect, the film manages to portray this aspect of Houston’s life in an honest, balanced, unsalacious way. The carefully-crafted script by Anthony McCarten (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY) shows us the various ways that alcohol and drugs can slowly infiltrate and negatively affect a life as complex but as common as Houston’s.
The portents of the tragedy to come are there, rendered subtly at first. When her father has a violent argument with her mother Cissy Houston (played the amazing Tamara Tunie) when she’s a teenager, Houston takes refuge in her brothers’ room and reaches for a bong hit. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this scene. I used to do the same thing after fighting with my parents when I was a teenager. But it does show us how common - and indeed mundane - this simple mechanical act of looking for instant emotional relief actually is, and where it can sometimes lead.
As Houston’s fame skyrockets, so do the demands placed upon her by her parents, her advisors, and the public in general. As I explained in my review of GIA in Chapter 5 of the book, people who reach the pinnacle of fame as young adults face an onslaught of emotional challenges they are completely underqualified to address. Worse still, they live in a bubble, surrounded by “yes men” whose only imperative is to monetize them as quickly and as efficiently as possible, not sympathize or help them emotionally. In many cases, not Houston’s specifically, it’s actually in the yes men’s best interest to supply the substances which keep the money spigot open.
Which is not to say that Houston was entirely a victim of her fame and fortune and the speculators around her, including her often-maligned ex-husband and reality TV co-star Bobby Brown. No, Houston, like all of us, could have made better choices. But you can’t deny the enormous pressures that led her to make some of these choices. Excusing bad behavior may not be an option for some less empathetic viewers, but explaining it in an honest and well-balanced film like I WANNA’ DANCE WITH SOMEBODY elevates us all. None of us will ever be able to sing like Whitney, but we get her nonetheless. And even though her story had a sad ending, we can - as authors of our own life story - exercise the ultimate freedom to write better outcomes for ourselves every day.
And we can choose how to remember Whitney Houston's story as well. Cynicism and schadenfreude have driven many to unfairly reduce her complex existence to the mere memory of her as a "troubled artist" or an "addict," when we all know she was defined by much more than just her widely-publicized personal problems. It's just as easy to stigmatize a person's legacy in death as it is to carelessly label a person in everyday life. Yes, we can learn from their individual mistakes, but we grow when we celebrate the totality of their example.
I WANNA’ DANCE WITH SOMEBODY is playing in theaters right now, and I highly recommend you grab some friends, buy a huge bowl of popcorn, witness Whitney’s equal parts euphoric and tragic journey on the big screen, and - why not? - go ahead and sing along with her amazing big-screen performances, regardless of who's sitting around you.