Headline writing is an art, you know? When I saw the bold text at the top of the Deadline piece, ‘Whitney Houston Biopic Crystallizes’, I thought it was strangely appropriate. The biopic has ‘crystallized’, or set; hardened – because I guess we all kind of knew somehow that there would be a biopic about Whitney Houston someday, somehow. Right? Of all the icons we’ve lost over the past decade or two, doesn’t it seem like she’s the one who’s still on everyone’s lips? Not to diminish the cultural impact of other megawatt stars we lost (and there was just a Prince tribute last week), but Whitney’s name still comes up, we still reference her songs all the time.
So to tell the story of her life onscreen seems like an obvious step – and the ‘crystallizing’ involves assembling the perfect team. They’re calling it I Wanna Dance With Somebody (if I were betting, I’d say it will be shortened to just Dance With Somebody before it’s released) and the producing team includes Clive Davis, Primary Wave music, who are partners in Whitney’s estate, and Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law. This is as authorized as it could possibly be – and so, naturally, the story and the team are going to be handpicked.
The biopic will be written by Oscar-nominated writer Anthony McCarten, and the piece says they are ‘negotiating’ with Stella Meghie to direct (but her name’s in the headline, it’s all but a done deal). The Deadline article says she ‘chased this job hard’, but I can’t see how they could do much better on the directing front.
I have a lot of feelings about this team. On the one hand, Stella Meghie is a hugely inspired choice – she’s a young Black woman whose four feature films have all dealt with the inner and romantic lives of young women, which is unquestionably the area where this film will be most compelling. On the other hand, she’s written all the features she directed herself, with the exception of the adaptation of Nicola Yoon’s Everything, Everything, so part of the Meghie magic is in the writing-directing combo …or at least, it has been up to now.
Instead they have Anthony McCarten writing. My first thought was ‘ohhhh, of course they need some Oscar-nominated dude to write this…’, and on some level I can’t shake that feeling. But on the other hand, McCarten doesn’t just write Oscar-nominated movies, he writes biopics of real people: The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Two Popes – they’re all focused on making real human beings out of previously arms-length icons. I can’t argue with the choice, and I further can’t argue that when dealing with a subject who has such massive recognition, you might need more than one person to really carry all the cultural weight of who Whitney Houston was.
Of course, as the article points out, that means the next question is who plays Whitney – and here, I have only two hopes. Maybe two and a half.
Obviously the film will use her music, so I don’t know if I think they need an actress who can sing like Whitney. That is, I definitely think they need someone who can sing, but we get so caught up in the incredible, other-worldliness of her voice that we sometimes forget how compelling and effervescent and young she was as a star, on carpets, in concert, onscreen. I humbly think that winsome bubbliness is the most important thing to bring out onscreen, and any of the known singer-actresses who could handle the role – Jennifer Hudson or Beyoncé or whomever – have grown up in her shadow and in her thrall. It’ll take an unknown to really, truly be able to play Whitney with abandon, without carrying the weight in her performance of who ‘Whitney Houston’ would someday be.
It’s an enormous ask, but I’m excited by what it could mean – the person who can carry off this role will, if it’s done right, be vaulted to the top of Hollywood’s A-list, and I cannot wait to see who becomes the face of that question mark.