Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody Review | Hits Enough High Notes

by Andrew Parker

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is, at its core, a standard crowd pleasing biopic about a famous musician, but one that makes some unique and interesting choices along the way to set itself apart from the overcrowded pack. While it’s perfectly content playing all the hits and looking at some of the tougher moments in Whitney Houston’s rocky life and career through rose coloured glasses, I Wanna Dance with Somebody also offers a compassionate, balanced, and humane portrait of someone who burned like a supernova at the height of their fame. It probably helps to be a fan coming into this, but Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody should suitably entertain and educated anyone in the mood for this kind of light touch biography.

Raised into a deeply religious family chock full of established singers already, Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) was born and groomed to be a star. Her critical minded mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), and business minded father, John (Clarke Peters), guided their daughter to a lucrative record contract with Arista Records president Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), with whom Whitney shared a close, personal bond. With an undeniably powerful, almost superhuman voice, Houston’s success on the charts was swift and immediate, becoming one of the best selling solo artists in history.

And naturally, that success brought with it Whitney’s share of headaches and scandals. And director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) and writer Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything) know that outside of the music, viewers probably want a new take on all the hot gossip that surrounded Houston’s personal life and tragic passing at the age of only 48 in 2012. As such, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody foregoes the singer’s early years and origin story, pretty much jumping right into things once Davis has discovered the teenage singing sensation. What follows is a fast paced journey through various highs and lows of Houston’s career, with Lemmons and McCarten making some inspired choices of what moments to keep and which to abandon.

When documenting a celebrity who was so talented and widely speculated about as Houston, filmmakers have daunting decisions ahead of them, which is probably why several years ago there were two wildly different, competing documentaries about Whitney released in the span of a year. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody isn’t trying to be a documentary by any stretch, but it does want to cover the basic facts and work towards clearing up a lot of misconceptions people had about the titular subject.

As previously mentioned, McCarten was responsible for writing the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and this certainly fits the same template, but Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody emerges as the better, more well rounded film as a result. Since Houston was never a songwriter, the scenes where Whitney is sitting around with Davis trying to find their next hit singles aren’t as forced and corny. Lemmons captures these moments of creativity and success without resorting to shortcuts or convenient ironies, meaning the film frees up a lot of space to allow for a portrait of a complicated human being to take place rather than some sort of glowing tribute to an icon. Sure, there are plenty of lengthy performance sequences to be found – with the story built around a particularly memorable performance at the 1994 American Music Awards that might be one of the most difficult vocal exercises ever attempted by the singer – but it lets Houston’s powerhouse voice speak for itself instead of watching a bunch of songwriters in a room trying to hash out a hit. (And that voice does speak for itself literally, since much like Bohemian Rhapsody, the lead has to lip sync a great deal of the performances. But honestly, no one was ever going to find another Whitney Houston again.)

The parallels to Bohemian Rhapsody are also apparent in how Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody approaches queer narratives, and it also improves on things ever so slightly in that department. Houston’s relationship to her best friend and creative director Robin Crawford (exceptionally played by Nafessa Williams) was long thought to be romantic behind-the-scenes. Lemmons nicely stages some moments of tenderness and attraction between Houston and Crawford, but nothing more than some chaste snuggling and knowing looks. The film is still too scared to talk about Houston’s sexuality openly (suggesting rather intriguingly that the Christian faith she had been raised with since childhood really messed her head up), but it does better than not talking about it at all. We can never see these two women kiss, but we can see Houston passionately making out with the man she would end up marrying, Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), which is a depressingly expected bit of mainstream filmmaking double standards.

The depiction of Houston and Brown’s legendarily contentious marriage is also nicely layered. On one hand, Houston appreciates how she can let her guard down around him and simply be herself for awhile instead of always being America’s Sweetheart. She likes how Bobby can protect her from things she doesn’t want to do and people she doesn’t want to see. But he’s also a serial womanizer and an emotionally and physically abusive cad who enables a drug problem that only got worse once he entered the picture. Ackie shares great chemistry with both Crawford and Sanders, making these tandem relationships the heart and soul that Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody needs to ultimately succeed beyond a surface level dumping of facts delivered in a melodramatic fashion.

And sure, there are other things that add drama to Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, like her father’s wasting of money, the constant questioning if she was either a black artist or a white friendly sell out pop singer, the worsening of her voice due to prolonged drug use, and only the teeniest-tiniest mentioning of her relationship to her daughter. But Lemmons doesn’t want to overload the audience more than necessary. Lemmons knows there’s arguably too much ground to cover in a single two-and-a-half hour movie, so she lets her lead and the opulent visuals do a lot of the talking to fill in gaps.

Ackie fully disappears into the role of Houston, seemingly born to portray the pop icon. Ackie nails every bit of Houston’s star power, swagger, and attitude, constantly keeping the film grounded whenever things threaten to turn melodramatic. It’s a delicate performance of a person who was far more complex than the media wanted her to be, and Ackie is confidently up to the task, turning in a star making performance in her own right. Ackie also gets a nice, subtle assist from the costuming department here, which constantly outfits Houston according to the character’s comfort level in ever scene. Houston wants to always be dressed down and casual, and Ackie’s performance reflects whenever Whitney is feeling calm or stressed out depending on what she’s wearing at any given moment. It’s a nice touch to help round out a great performance.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody might be just another jukebox musical masquerading as a serious biography, but it’s not a bad time at the movies. There are plenty of moments carefully designed to get a required audience reaction, and Lemmons’ savvy as a director means these beats succeed far more times than they fail. It’s handling some dark material with soft touches, but it’s never looking past those rough times just so the film can get on to the next big production number. It’s still relatively middle-of-the-road fare, but it’s so satisfying in its balance that it’s hard to take it to task for doing anything wrong. Considering how many times this same approach has been botched in recent years, the relative success of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is almost a cause for celebration.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in theatres everywhere on Thursday, December 22, 2022.

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