Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Releasing
Written by Patrick Hao
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” comes along at a time when there has been a string of authorized biopics of iconic music stars. From “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Respect,” all with varying degrees of quality, these films are fawning depictions of their subjects whose idolatry misses what makes their respective subjects interesting. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” might be the biggest victim of being an authorized biopic.
The film directed by Kasi Lemmons is a series of faithful recreations of the most memorable moments of Whitney Houston’s career, from her start on the Merv Griffith show to her Star Spangled Banner performance at the Super Bowl. Whitney Houston is played valiantly by Naomi Ackie, who is up to the task of capturing the effervescent nature of Whitney in her prime. We follow Whitney from her humble beginnings in New Jersey as a backup singer to her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), to her discovery and signing to Arista Records by Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), to her relationship with the wild Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), to her eventual death. In order to fit all of this in, the film moves at a breakneck pace, never having time to breathe in the situations or really interrogate the interiority of Houston’s life and career.
The film is seemingly aware of what people know about Houston and the way she became a tabloid fixture in her later life. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is an overcorrection of the American Sweetheart to drug addict narrative, at the sacrifice of what made Houston that way in the first place. Rather, the film’s primary purpose is to remind audiences what a singular talent Houston was. Lemmons, the talented director of films such as “Eve’s Bayou” and “Harriet,” gives the film much-needed texture that is missing from films of this ilk. The recreations of Houston’s music videos and concerts are brimming with life and energy, so much so that songs are allowed to be played in full.
That is fine if this was a concert film. But, everything else is so unsatisfyingly surface-level that I, someone who only had a cursory knowledge of the Whitney Houston story, left the theater knowing just as much as I did before. Houston to say the least had a complicated relationship with public image. The film acknowledges her prominent romantic relationship with a woman, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), her status as a black artist made for white people, and the reasons why she would begin a volatile relationship with “bad boy” Bobby Brown. But, acknowledgment is nothing when the film seemingly does not want to say anything beyond how terrible it is to have all that pressure. The film has no time to ruminate on how this is actually affecting Houston because from one scene to the next, two years had passed. It all feels meaningless.
It is especially telling when the figure that comes out looking best is Clive Davis, the legendary music producer who had a profound impact on Houston’s career, and who also happens to have produced this film. Played with immutable charm from Stanley Tucci, Davis is depicted as the benevolent manager. No interrogation is made as to his impact on Houston beyond that. Not to say that Davis was a Colonel Tom Parker figure, but his altruistic depiction without any color reeks of his authority over the film. He does control much of the music rights after all.
If the film deserves any credit, it is that it deals with the unsavory moments of Houston’s life without any of the gross exploitation it could have. It is the third act when Lemmons gets to slow down and insert gravitas into that particular period of Houston’s life. It is a shame then that everything else felt superficial. This is a film that is more interested in telling you about the events that happen rather than the why and how. But then again, by the time the film recreates in its entirety Whitney’s 1994 American Music Awards medley, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” almost gives a reason for its existence. Almost.
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” Trailer