WHITNEY HOUSTON- I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY (2022)
As a Whitney Houston superfan, this Kasi Lemmons directed feature tribute to the life and times of an enduring pop-culture icon is absolutely sensational for me. It makes you behold the performative brilliance of Naomi Ackie who not just embodies ‘the voice’ with her pitch-perfect lip-sync, body movement, accent and graceful gestures incremental to Ms. Houston’s stage presence but lets us embrace the real ‘Nippy’.
We use the term transformative very easily. Here, Ms. Ackie actually honours the legend with utmost precision and respect. It’s not just the singing and musical repertoire in general. Whitney, here, confronts her manipulative father for his financial misdeeds in two explosive scenes that cement her individual stand and recreates that radio interview where she calls out society for its assumptions regarding something as secular and universal as music or her image as a ‘black woman’ in the mainstream.
It is a body of work that covers whole performances that every admirer has watched multiple times. Such milestones as The Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, her instantly rapturous rendition of Home on The Merv Griffin Show and the showstopping medley of I Love You Porgy, And I’m Telling You and I Have Nothing at the 1994 American Music Awards are all here in their entirety. The commitment to recreating these feats authentically extend to the costumes, make-up and hairstyling, lighting, editing and sound design. Then the sheer joy of watching music videos for How Will I Know, I Will Always Love You and It’s All Right But It’s Not Okay unfold with ease, introducing different eras of her artistic evolution. Just as her debut at a New York Club with a cover of The Greatest Love Of All, a fortituous event we know about, is brought to life without shortening her musical prowess in that moment for the sake of lucidity alone. Or her triumphant, bittersweet comeback on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009.
But this isn’t a documentary approach that gets evinced. There’s a real dramatic flair to her beautiful but ultimately troubled reckoning with best friend and creative manager Robyn, her personal unraveling and downward spiral with Bobby Brown as well as the winsome moments when with mentor and actual father figure Clive Davis. Stanley Tucci is such a wonderful presence here as the musical legend who lets Whitney be who she is as an individual and as an artist. Like RESPECT before it, this biopic is stirring in melding the personal and the professional halves together.
The pressures of stratospheric fame, global tours, mismanagement by her own father, the tough love and constant pats on the back from her mother Cissy, her own motherhood and the whirl of a public life marked by substance abuse in her most vulnerable stages all lead to her roller-coaster journey. They are all conveyed with tact. We are never made to forget who she is as a full, well-rounded individual, warts and all.
I love how Ackie delivers her body language such as eye expressions, instances of resting her hands on her jaws when pensive and tensed and the weight of years of emotional abuse she carries on her slender yet physically hollow body. She towers here and in a just world, she would be showered with all the accolades. She has truly done Whitney Houston justice by plunging herself into the mind, body and soul of this cinematic work’s subject. Above all, she is successful in evincing empathy for her and inspiring renewed hope for her legacy.
Two scenes in particular stand out for me. One in which she rehearses with her musical director for the AMAs medley and is combative, angry and yet takes up the challenge of hitting extended notes for the final arc. We can see how deeply she is in the throes of personal crises and can see through others’ demands the hefty price she always has to pay for possessing that voice. The other is a beautifully structured scene in the closing minutes where a chance encounter with a bartender at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, hours before her untimely death, preserves the power of her legacy for her greatest admirers. The bartender is still shown to be awed by her AMAS performance in the present meeting with her and assures her of who she is- an artist who can never be defeated by changing cultural mores. It’s a fitting arc for this triumphant ode to The Woman and The Voice.
I expected nothing less from the director of Harriet(2019). With big stakes in this story, Kasi Lemmons comes up with a deep dive that is traditionally chronological but ultimately becomes uplifting and poignant. That’s the worth of this eventful life captured in song.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE- SEASON 5(2022)
The Elisabeth Moss led ensemble for this intense dramatic series began its fifth year with a slow burn befitting the psychological import of abuse and trauma for lead protagonist June.
Yes, things get repetitive and the cycle of near-misses and captures, escapes and misdemeanours can still get very heavy-handed indeed. But living in this lawless actual world where reel events seem like expert replications of events plaguing a destabilized ‘modern era’, those seem like quibbles. That’s where this series again found its footing, sprawling itself into ten episodes where societal ignominy was the norm even with constant push for change and justice for the survivors, now inhabiting a politicised new landscape.
The demon in the form of Colonel Waterford has been slayed. His surviving widow is now a bitter and dangerous presence and with a burgeoning section of Canadian citizens skewing towards her maternal politics of repopulating an environmentally cursed nation, she spread her tentacles. Her volte-face as somewhat of a handmaid herself under asylum and then escaping with her newborn is a reverse of what June and others had to bear for years. That itself is the beginning of her comeuppance.
June herself became divided into an avenging force and a mother desperate to be reunited with her first-born Hannah while caring for her infant second child even as her dynamics with Luke were profound under the most trying circumstances; on the other hand, Moira felt her best friend’s devolving attitude towards a bottomless pit of vengeance, to be cold and distant.
In Gilead, McKenna Grace’s teenage wife turned handmaid in training provided a soul-crushing study of abuse, pushback against authority and a point in time that prompted even Aunt Lydia to push for reforms regarding the girls’ bodily autonomy. Janine was another continuum of the state’s many victims, vouching for one last shot at being close to her daughter. The point being that no resistance to authority can come for those entrapped or for the enablers who are standing up for the girls but cannot absolve themselves of a present they willingly helped to perpetuate. Gilead remains a republic of despots. Still there’s a real chance that something is shifting underneath its steely surface. Bradley Whitford’s Commander has further created a ripple in these waters by calling for rehabilitation of Gilead’s former captives within a community based there and his brand of diplomacy with June and the Canadian government opens this tale up for a literal crossing of borders.
Xenophobia, strains of past trauma, the psychology of abuse and the constant movement and social churning for survivors lend it an upper edge. These are all culled from headlines we encounter on a daily basis. With added urgency and sustained tension besides excellence of performances and technical details, THE HANDMAID’S TALE-SEASON 5 becomes a simmering pot of socio-political tumult. That remains its biggest draw.
PAMELA, A LOVE STORY(2023)
This is another example of how truth and sincerity enshrined in the non-fiction form can rescue narratives from lifetimes of judgements.
The Netflix documentary Pamela, A Love Story is all about the titular superstar without the baggage of her fame or the image that trapped her for most of her youth. It confronts her deepest secrets, her encounters with abuse and the source of shame which led to her inner unraveling over decades. Unfortunately, the public only saw her glamour, her Baywatch stint as a world-conquering feat, her sexuality and denigrated her as a symbol, a vapid signifier of an oversexed, capitalistic, sexist and male-dominated cultural discourse.
Here, she is honest about all of that and more. It’s her voice and outlook that reaches us without the addendum of shame, whether it’s for her modelling success with Playboy or the manner in which her private life was consumed by voyeurs who always seemed to hold her up to one image and nothing else.
The most striking and beautiful part is that her literary journey through the decades is traced to the sea of journals she now brings to public notice. Her journals open up her world of hopes, dreams, disappointments and frustrations while her catalogue of home-videos give us visual access to her evolution from a Canadian local to a wife and mother or the person who mostly wishes to be stripped of the artifice and make-up and take each stage of her lifetime in her stride.
Never defensive about her choices, this is a love-letter to the self and to her present accomplishments as an author and Broadway star that rejuvenates her narrative through a style that is evocative and empathetic. As she shows the world her talents as the triumphant star of Chicago on the stage, we cheer for her. This documentary brings back the sweet, passionate girl with optimism that her characterisation of T.J. on Baywatch stood for.