In the years since her death in 2012, the life and legacy of Whitney Houston have invoked an almost obsessive curiosity about the real person behind the larger-than-life persona of one of the world’s most talented musical artists. Her undeniable gift and glittering career catapulted her to fame, but it’s been the details of her personal life—her complicated relationship with her parents, her sexuality, her forays into marriage and parenthood, her struggles with substance abuse—that have been the focus of the many narratives, documentaries, and series about the six-time Grammy winner.
Both Houston’s outsized career and her complex interior life take center stage in Kasi Lemmons’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody, a biopic about the singer which releases on Dec. 23. While other projects about Houston have had a morbid, sometimes exploitative fascination with the struggles and tragedy of her life, the film takes care with the story of Whitney (Naomi Ackie), imbuing her life both on and off the stage with nuance in an effort to offer an authentic re-telling. This may be due in part to the involvement of Clive Davis, the record producer and Whitney’s mentor, who served as an executive producer on the film, with the blessing of Pat Houston, her sister-in-law and the administrator of her estate. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t take some creative liberties, however. Below, we’ve done a fact check of some of the major points of I Wanna Dance With Somebody.
Was Houston discovered by Clive Davis while singing back-up for her mother in a club?
Early in the film, Houston is discovered by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who, at the urging of A&R Gerry Griffith, watches her perform at the Manhattan nightclub Sweetwater’s, where she’s singing backup for her mother, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie). Upon seeing Davis in the audience, the elder Houston feigns throat trouble and urges her daughter to sing lead, including the song, “The Greatest Love of All,” impressing Davis so much that he later offers her a record deal.
This scenario aligns mostly with reality; in an interview for Conversations With Whitney Houston and Clive Davis, Davis divulged that the first time he saw Houston sing was at Sweetwater’s, where she was singing backup for her mother, but performed two solo songs, one of which was “The Greatest Love of All.”
“It was sung with such verve, such natural vocal gifts, with such passion that I was stunned,” he said. “I knew right then and there that this was a very special talent.” Davis signed a 19-year-old Houston to a record deal in 1983, beginning a musical partnership what would last 29 years, until her death in 2012.
What was Houston’s relationship to Robyn Crawford?
In the film, one of Houston’s most important relationships begins when she meets Robyn Crawford (played by Nafessa Williams) at a community center as a high school student. The two develop a deep friendship, which takes a romantic turn and leads to them moving in together. While the love between Crawford and Houston is real, disapproval from Whitney’s family, particularly her father, takes a toll on their relationship. Likewise, as Houston’s singing career begins to gain momentum, pressure begins to mount to keep their relationship secret to protect Houston’s public image as a pop princess.
After Houston has a brief fling with Jermaine Jackson, she insinuates to Crawford that because she wants a family in the future, she will ultimately end up in a straight relationship. While their romantic interlude ends early on in Houston’s career, Crawford becomes her assistant and creative director. Later, when Houston pursues a relationship with Bobby Brown, in a seeming effort to quell rumors about her sexuality, as well as critiques of her not being “Black enough,” it strains her friendship with Crawford, who has ongoing tensions with Brown. Things finally come to a head when Crawford unsuccessfully tries to have an intervention for Houston’s substance abuse issue, leading her to break ties with the singer.
In real life, Crawford and Houston really did meet at a community center in East Orange, N.J. in 1980 when the singer was in high school and Crawford, a basketball player, was home from college. They became fast friends, striking up a deep connection that would last two decades. While there was always speculation about the nature of their relationship, it wasn’t confirmed by Crawford until she wrote her 2019 memoir, A Song For You: My Life With Whitney Houston; in the book, Crawford details how they shared their first kiss weeks after meeting and soon became physically intimate, although it was their immediate emotional connection that she remembered most about that time:
You could tell Whitney and I were tight. It wasn’t all about our sleeping together. We could be naked. We could be bare and didn’t have to hide. We could trust each other with our secrets, our feelings, and who we were. We were friends. We were lovers. We were everything to each other. We weren’t falling in love. We just were. We had each other. We were one: That’s how it felt…We never talked labels, like lesbian or gay. We just lived our lives, and I hoped it could go on that way forever.
According to Crawford, her and Houston’s romantic relationship was discouraged by Houston’s parents and disparaged by Houston herself; Brown alleged in his 2016 memoir, Every Little Step, that both the Houston family and Clive Davis disapproved of even the suggestion of a relationship between Houston and Crawford: “They couldn’t let Whitney live the life she wanted to live; they insisted that she be perfect, that she be someone she wasn’t,” he wrote. “That’s why they wanted Robyn out.”
It was a sentiment that he echoed in an interview from the same year with Us Weekly, noting that the pressure on Houston to appear a certain way played a role in her decline: “I really feel that if Robyn was accepted into Whitney’s life, Whitney would still be alive today,” he said. “She didn’t have close friends with her anymore.”
As in the film, Crawford and Houston lived together, but in real life, during this time, they were just roommates, sharing space platonically in Woodbridge, N.J. In addition to being her closest friend, Crawford was also her assistant, before becoming her creative director. However, as Houston began dating high-profile men like Jermaine Jackson, Eddie Murphy, and eventually her future husband Brown, Crawford shared that it was hard to reckon with the changing nature of their relationship.
“The physical part of our friendship was no longer, but the intimacy…our friendship was intimate on all levels, that’s how deep it was,” she wrote. “I wanted her to call me and say, ‘Guess what, this is happening [with Jermaine].’ And she wasn’t doing that, and that hurt more than anything. It didn’t feel like she was cheating on me—it felt more like she was leaving me out.”
In a 2019 Essence interview, Crawford addressed the rumored tensions between her and Brown, admitting that she was often annoyed by him and his antics, as well as his jealousy of her close relationship with Houston; after Brown and Houston married, her relationship with the singer deteriorated due to Houston’s tumultuous marriage and drug use. By 2000, eight years after Houston got married, Crawford had reached her breaking point professionally with the singer, resigning as her creative director. The end of their professional relationship also led to distance in their friendship, with no real reunion between the two before Houston’s death.
Did she push back at the suggestion she wasn’t “Black enough” in a radio interview?
A particularly loaded moment in the film takes place when a radio host asks Houston how she would respond to critiques that she didn’t act or sing “Black enough” as the reigning pop star of her generation. In response, Houston shuts down her naysayers: “That’s just bull,” she says in the movie. “And it makes me angry, actually. It’s hateful and uninformed. My whole life, ‘She ain’t Black enough, she ain’t white enough.’ Music is not a color to me. It has no boundaries. I sing what I want to sing, be how I want to be, and reach as big an audience I can.”
While this specific situation does not appear to have happened in real life, many scenarios like it happened to Houston early on in her career, especially because her music had a distinctly pop sound that differed from the soul and R&B sound that many people associated with Black artists, including her mother and her first cousin, Dionne Warwick. While Houston was one of the first Black female artists to successfully conquer the white mainstream market, appealing to a broader audience came at a cost. Houston’s racial identity and how she performed it was under constant scrutiny, from both Black and non-Black music fans, with some Black critics questioning whether she was “Black enough.” The Rev. Al Sharpton notoriously dubbed her “Whiteny Houston,” while some Black radio stations and DJs refused to play her pop-infused records. As depicted in the movie, one of the most noteworthy example of the immense pressure that she faced in real life was the 1988 and 1989 Soul Train Awards, where she was booed by the audience.
Houston addressed the jeers in a 1991 interview with Ebony: “[Some people in the audience] had just gotten sick of me and just didn’t want me to win another award,” she said. “No, it does not make you feel good. I don’t like it and I don’t appreciate it, but I just kind of write it off as ignorance.” She elaborated on her feelings about the critiques of her musical style and its place in the cultural landscape in a 1996 interview with Katie Couric: “You’re not Black enough for them,” she explained to Katie Couric in a 1996 interview. “You’re not R&B enough. You’re very pop. The white audience has taken you away from them.”
Was it really Kevin Costner who suggested she sing “I Will Always Love You” for The Bodyguard?
In I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Davis appears on the set of The Bodyguard with a Walkman loaded with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” for Houston to consider for the film’s soundtrack, citing that her co-star Kevin Costner suggested it. In real life, Costner really was the driving force behind Houston covering “I Will Always Love You.”
While she was originally set to record a cover of Jimmy Ruffin’s “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” for the soundtrack’s lead single, after discovering that the song would be featured prominently in Fried Green Tomatoes, Houston went on a search for a new song. During an interview in 2011 for CMT’s 40 Greatest Love Songs, Parton, who originally wrote the song in 1973 after dissolving her professional partnership with her mentor Porter Wagoner, said that Costner and his secretary were fans of the song and were the ones who reached out to her about using it.
“Kevin Costner and his secretary are the ones that loved the song,” Parton said. “They had another song that was going to go in that place, and someone had recorded the song they were going to use. They were just in a panic at the last minute. And so they asked me about the song. I sent it. I didn’t hear anything more.”
In the movie, Houston immediately takes to the song. In real life, Costner had to work hard to persuade Houston and Davis that covering “I Will Always Love You” was a good idea. In a 2008 interview with CMT.com, Costner revealed that it was a tough sell to Davis and other Arista executives.
“When I said to Whitney, ‘You’re gonna sing “I Will Always Love You,”’ the ground shook,” Costner said. “Clive Davis and those guys were going, ‘What?!’ I said, ‘This is a very important song in this movie.’ I didn’t care if it was ever on the radio. I didn’t care.” While the original country version by Parton didn’t compel Whitney to think the song could be a hit, another listen with a 1975 cover by Linda Ronstadt convinced her.
Costner was also responsible for one of the most memorable stylings of Houston’s soulful 1992 arrangement of the song: the a capella intro.
“I said, ‘We’re also going to do this a cappella at the beginning,” Costner told CMT.com. “I need it to be a cappella because it shows a measure of how much she digs this guy—that she sings without music.’”
The Bodyguard soundtrack still holds the record for being the no. 1 best-selling movie soundtrack of all time, making it into the Guinness Book of World Records and selling 45 million copies around the world. The track later went on to become diamond certified and has become one of the most popular and beloved songs in Houston’s discography.
What was the significance of Houston’s concerts in South Africa?
In a scene from the film, Houston performs in front of an adoring audience in Johannesburg, South Africa to celebrate the election of Nelson Mandela; the reception is a marked contrast to the attitudes toward her in the U.S., where a few years earlier, she was critiqued by music fans as pandering to white audiences.
While it’s hard to say if the reality of the audience reception was as stark a contrast as the film depicts, her 1994 performance was a momentous one. She was the first international star to perform in post-apartheid South Africa, after the presidential election of Mandela, which she commemorated with a three-night concert series in honor of the president; all proceeds from the concerts went to South African charities, including children’s museums, the President’s Trust Fund, the Kagiso Foundation, and various orphanages.
Did Whitney’s father mismanage her finances, leading to estrangement?
In one of the most sobering moments in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, Houston discovers that her father, John, has been mismanaging her funds, leading to her breaking ties with him both professionally and personally, while he’s sick in the hospital. While there’s no way of confirming that her father, a talent manager who managed the career of her mother, Cissy, before managing her own career, was mismanaging her earnings, Houston’s company was sued by her father’s company, John Houston Entertainment, in 2002 for $100 million for breach of contract. The suit, which sought compensation for helping to get a 2000 marijuana charge against her dismissed and for securing her a new record contract, was thrown out by a N.J. judge in 2004, but resulted in public tension between father and daughter that continued until John’s death in 2003.
Their conflict came to a head after Houston’s infamous 2002 Primetime interview with Diane Sawyer when she shared that she was deeply hurt by her father’s suit against her and claimed that she had never hired them.
“It hurts. They’ll never get $100 million out of me. I know that,” she said, adding later: “The bad part about it is that it’s about money, and that really sucks. That hurts more than anything.”
A day after the Primetime interview aired, John responded with an on-air interview of his own on the syndicated TV show, Celebrity Justice, where he demanded that Houston “pay me the money that you owe me,” from a hospital bed.
“You get your act together, honey, and you pay me the money that you owe me,” he said. “If you do that, you haven’t got a lawsuit…At my age, I haven’t got that long. Now if you think I got that long, you think about it. You step into my shoes. I would like to spend the last years of my life on a boat some place.”
When John died in 2003, it was reported that Houston did not attend the funeral (as in the movie), but she addressed the rumors during a 2009 interview with Oprah, stating that she had a private memorial the day before so she could grieve privately. (The film, on the other hand, depicts her as too strung out to attend.) During the interview, she also shared that she had forgiven him for the lawsuit and their differences.
“I love my dad, and I knew he was sickly. People were trying to get money from him. Distract me from him,” she said. “There were years we didn’t speak at all, but when he got sickly, I went to the hospital and I said, ‘let’s end this right now.’”