Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast : Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Clarke Peters, Nafessa Williams, Bria Danielle Singleton
Run Time : 145 min
Opens : 29 December 2022
Rating : M18
Music superstar Whitney Houston was one of the greatest vocalists of her generation, and ten years after her tragic and untimely passing, she remains a beloved figure. Whitney has been the subject of multiple documentaries and has her life dramatised in a TV movie. She now receives the big screen biopic treatment.
Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) grew up singing in church, the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) and army veteran-turned manager John Houston (Clarke Peters). Whitney is a backup singer for her mother, and quickly catches the attention of record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the founder of Arista Records. Whitney signs on to Arista Records, experiencing astronomical success. Whitney hires her best friend and lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) as her Creative Director, something her father opposes. Whitney soon falls in love with singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and they have a tumultuous relationship. Whitney struggles with severe substance abuse issues as she attempts to continue her career while facing various struggles. A best-selling artist, actress and mother to Bobbi Kristina (Bria Danielle Singleton), Whitney’s life is tragically cut short, but she leaves behind a legacy of astounding music.
Naomi Ackie is excellent in the demanding title role. While she doesn’t sing the vocals herself and lip-syncs to actual Whitney Houston tracks, one forgets that after a while. Ackie gives a lively, compelling performance, at no point succumbing to the immense pressure of portraying such a well-known and widely-loved figure. The rest of the cast is strong too, with Tucci serving as a warm, reassuring presence as Davis. The music of Whitney Houston is showcased prominently in the film, as it should be, with Houston’s oft-musical director Rickey Minor serving as a consultant. The re-enactments of key moments in Whitney’s career, including her triumphant, iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the in 1991, are suitably rousing. This is a movie that is very respectful of Whitney even as it depicts the low points of her life and career, and it refrains from exploitative sensationalism. There are moments when director Kasi Lemmons does arrive at the euphoric chills-inducing moments every musical biopic should have, even if they do seem a little manufactured.
Unfortunately, I Wanna Dance with Somebody suffers from pretty much every musical biopic pitfall. In trying to offer a macro lens overview of Whitney’s life and career, the movie can feel unfocused, and it is very much functioning as a greatest hits album. We get the feeling that the movie has to hit all the points in Whitney’s life that everyone remembers, and as such it feels dutiful. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also penned Bohemian Rhapsody, does sometimes lapse into a soap opera feel as we hop from confrontation to big performance to confrontation. Bohemian Rhapsody ended with a faithful re-enactment of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance, and I Wanna Dance with Somebody does a similar move. Letting multiple musical numbers play out in their entirety does honour Whitney’s craft, but it also increases the running time, and as good as Ackie’s performance is, we still are watching someone lip-sync to someone else’s singing, at the end of the day.
Clive Davis is portrayed as especially saintly in the film, which can be attributed to the real Davis being one of the movie’s producers. The movie also awkwardly avoids featuring certain figures: the production of The Bodyguard is covered but Kevin Costner only appears in archival footage cutaways, and in a later scene in which Whitney performs on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Oprah is only glimpsed on a monitor.
The film’s overall respectful approach can make it feel like it’s pulling its punches, but it serves primarily to celebrate Whitney, and not to dissect her, and it succeeds on that front.
Summary: Naomi Ackie delivers a radiant lead performance in the biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, but the movie is trapped by the standard rise-and-fall musical biopic structure. Made with a great respect for its subject while also attempting to cover the less glamorous parts of Whitney Houston’s life, the movie doesn’t offer great insight, but functions as a greatest hits album chronicling a truly remarkable career filled with unforgettable music. The multiple documentaries that already exist go into more detail and are more interesting overall, but at its best, I Wanna Dance with Somebody still possesses enough power to make Whitney Houston fans emotional.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars