Whitney Houston - I Wanna Dance With Somebody: Naomi Ackie on becoming one of the greatest music stars of all time

On 7 February 1994, Whitney Houston took home seven of the eight prizes she had been nominated for at the American Music Awards in Los Angeles. On the night, she performed the "impossible medley" of three enormous songs: I Loves You, Porgy, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, and I Have Nothing.

Each on its own would challenge even the most accomplished vocalists; Whitney Houston, the voice of a generation, took them all on in one go, and made it look effortless. It is considered by many as the singer's greatest ever performance, in a career filled with spine-tingling performances. Search for it online and prepare to be moved to tears, even without considering the tragic end to Houston's story.

This is one of many renowned performances that British star Naomi Ackie, from Walthamstow in east London, studied in order to take on the biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which is set to see her skyrocket.

You might recognise Ackie, 30, from appearances in Lady Macbeth with Florence Pugh, Idris Elba's directorial debut Yardie, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, or Netflix's The End Of The F****** World, for which she won a BAFTA in 2020. But as a relative newcomer, to leading a film at least, this is a huge role to take on.

She was initially fearful of taking the part, aware of the scrutiny that will inevitably come with it, but needn't have worried. The mouth quivers, the timing of each and every breath, the voice control, the emotion that came through in Houston's performances - she has clearly done her homework.

"As soon as I got the part I was like, okay, clear the deck," she tells Sky News. "Not that I had a huge amount of jobs coming in - I don't want to make it seem like that - but it was definitely like, I don't want to take on any work, I just want to focus on this. And so it was about eight months of research and preparation and working with my movement coach and dialect coaches. I mean, the goal is that you practise so much that it's just in your body, so that you go on set and you just don't have to think about any of that."

It is the original recordings of Houston you hear throughout the film, so Ackie had to learn every beat, every breath, in order to become the singer. And there are some scenes featuring performances for which no recordings exist - Houston as a young woman rehearsing with her mother Cissy Houston in church, and performing with her at the club where she was discovered by music executive Clive Davis. For these, it is Ackie's impressive vocals you hear.

For the other performances, of the many hits including Greatest Love of All, Saving All My Love, How Will I Know, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, I Will Always Love You, So Emotional and One Moment In Time, Ackie still had to train her voice and sing as Houston along with the playback on set, even without sound being recorded, because lip-syncing, no matter how accomplished, just wouldn't have cut it.

Ackie says studying Houston to perfect her mannerisms was an emotional experience.

"Oh my God, there were so many times I would watch a live performance and actually just start crying," she says. "Just out of pure joy of watching her and there was moments of just real appreciation, especially when you start figuring out the reasons behind some of her movements, the reasons why she speaks the way she does. I just garnered more and more respect... as it went on."

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'I think I just heard the greatest voice of her generation'

I Wanna Dance With Somebody charts Houston's journey from the giggly tomboy nicknamed Nippy who sang in church in New Jersey, to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, plucked from obscurity by Davis, who is one of the film's producers and the main source of information on the star's life.

Stanley Tucci, who plays the famous music executive, spoke to him about his first impressions of Houston. "He knew. He knew as soon as he saw her... he said, 'I think I just heard the greatest voice of her generation'. And he was right. The way he talked about her, still talks about her [is] with such reverence and respect and admiration and, of course, sadness, because, you know, it's a tragic end to this incredible, not just life, but an incredible person."

While music industry executives are often seen as ruthless, I Wanna Dance With Somebody presents Davis as almost a fatherly figure to the young Houston.

"[He] really nurtured her and looked after her and tried to keep a distance [from her private life] as much as he could," says Tucci. "But, you know, eventually you do become like a father or an uncle or something like that. And I think that it's a lovely relationship. He's a very, very interesting guy, Clive Davis... the fact that he was so caring about his artists, but still had this amazing business acumen."

Working with Houston's family members

The film covers Houston's romance with friend-turned-assistant Robyn Crawford, and how she kept that side of her sexuality private, as well as her turbulent marriage to fellow singer Bobby Brown. It also depicts the drug addiction that led to her death in 2012, when she was found in a bath in Suite 434 at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles, ahead of a pre-Grammys party hosted by Davis that she had been expected to attend.

As well as Davis, producers worked with Gary and Pat Houston, Whitney's brother and sister-in-law (who was also her former manager), who recognised the importance of showing the different sides of the star's life.

"It was very intimate, I guess is the word," says Ackie, of speaking with the family members. "There was a sudden awareness that I was playing the part of Whitney, but also inhabiting a dynamic with the real people, that might mimic some of that with Whitney.

"And so it was informative, but also I really was blown away by the generosity of sharing the space and holding the space for me while I tried to figure it out. Pat Houston and Gary Houston and Clive Davis, all of these people were very much, like, in support, but also just very caring and intricate with the details that they told me, you know, because they want to celebrate Whitney, ultimately. And that's what this film is aiming to achieve."

'Some things are important to be left to mystery'

The film shows you "not everything, obviously, but it shows a great deal", says Tucci. "And it's not easy at times to watch it..."

"But it balances it," Ackie interjects. "You know, you can't have the good without the bad, the bad without the good."

The good includes Houston's performance of The Star Spangled Banner at Super Bowl in 1991, and her biggest hit, I Will Always Love You, at a show held to honour Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1994. Ackie also takes on the dance moves in music videos including I Wanna Dance With Somebody and It's Not Right, But It's Okay, as well as that famous chair scene, the light shining on her face in otherwise darkness, that is so associated with The Bodyguard.

We are reminded of Houston's incredible success - the singer who broke records by the Beatles (seven consecutive US number ones) and became the most awarded female artist of all time - as well as the demons that ultimately led to her demise.

While we all know how it ends, the film deals with Houston's death delicately, and in a particularly poignant way.

"I think, to be honest with you, had it have been done any other way I'm not sure if I would have been a part of it," says Ackie. "There's so much dramatic irony in terms of biopics anyway. But actually, I think some things are important to be left to mystery and actually focusing on the thing that we want to focus on, which is Whitney's amazingness as a human being, was important."

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is out in cinemas from Boxing Day