Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody
The latest film to bring Whitney Houston's life to the screen, this music biopic features a powerful lead performance, but also proves happy to hit every expected note.
December 22, 2022
In the decade since her gone-too-soon death in 2012, Whitney Houston has proven one of filmmaking's greatest loves of all. No fewer than five movies have told her tale, including documentaries Whitney: Can I Be Me and Whitney. And, that's without including a feature about her daughter Bobbi Kristina, a miniseries focused on her ex-husband Bobby Brown and dramas clearly based on her story. If she was still alive, a movie like Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody would've still reached screens at some point, though. Hollywood adores music biopics, especially lately, with Houston's latest stint in the celluloid spotlight following Elvis, Respect, The United States vs Billie Holiday, Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody in recent years alone. I Wanna Dance with Somebody even shares screenwriter Anthony McCarten with the latter — formula and inevitability combining, as is this genre's repeated refrain.
All of that attention has been echoing around Houston for obvious — and patently well-documented — reasons. Her mezzo-soprano voice, which earned her the nickname "The Voice", soared to stratospheric and literally breathtaking levels. She still holds the record for the most consecutive number-one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, which she took from The Beatles and the Bee Gees, as her career zoomed skyward as well. Houston's list of hits is massive and varied, spanning ballads such as 'Saving All My Love For You', dancefloor-filling pop like 'How Will I Know' and the anthemic 'I'm Every Woman', to name a mere few tracks. That swift rise from New Jersey church choir member to one of the biggest bestselling music artists ever was matched by tabloid-fodder lows, however, and that tragic passing — and I Wanna Dance with Somebody charts it all.
Taking its name from one of Houston's most exuberant singles isn't just a music biopic 101 move, although it's definitely that. Director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) follows the standard Wikipedia entry-like genre template, piecing together all of the requisite details, but she wants those titular words to constantly make a statement. Houston does want to dance — one of the strengths of that 80s tune has always been how genuine it feels — with the phrase used here to reflect how Whitney (Naomi Ackie, Master of None) just wants to be herself, to be loved as such, and openly be with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, Black Lightning). While still dreaming of success, Whitney and Robyn meet and sparks fly, but the times, attitudes and the demands of fame don't treat their romance kindly. I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn't shy away from their relationship, or from the disapproval of Whitney's gospel singer mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie, Cowboy Bebop) and stern father John (Clarke Peters, The Man Who Fell to Earth).
Whitney just wants to keep her hair short and wear jeans, too, but being a young Black woman in the 80s shooting for music stardom comes with demands. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is never so simplistic to equate having to don dresses and wigs with not being able to be true to her sexuality, but it paints a picture of a woman consistently forced to put others' expectations of her first. So, after being signed to Arista Records at 19 by producer and executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci, The King's Man), Whitney becomes America's princess next door. I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn't ignore her willingness to play the game, either — to perform the part she's told to if it means she'll keep rocketing higher, as a scene recreating the 'How Will I Know' music video shows — but the film's thesis is plain: made to be someone she wasn't, and stripped of the support she always wanted, this tale was unlikely to have a happy ending.
Joining the list of Lady Macbeth actors going on to huge things — the other: Florence Pugh — Ackie gives a commanding, multi-layered performance as the conflicted Houston. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is more concerned with attitude and emotion than strict physical resemblance, and it works. That the film is raw, heartfelt and moving in conveying Whitney's plight, including through her criticism for being too white, tumultuous relationship with Brown, moving into cinema with The Bodyguard, battles with her dad over his management and her substance-abuse troubles, all comes down to that pivotal portrayal. Indeed, such is the power in Ackie's efforts, she's still a tour-de-force while she's lip-synching. Smartly, Lemmons uses Houston's own vocals. When you're making a movie about "The Voice", you need to let your audience hear said voice. Visibly, is Ackie singing herself — the feature just dubs in the star she's playing over the top — and, unsurprisingly, the scenes where Whitney is on a stage or behind a microphone are high among I Wanna Dance with Somebody's standouts.
In a film that's impassioned, too, serving up electrifying performance recreations is a wise move. Baz Luhrmann's Elvis turned concert scenes into a dizzying, multi-sensory, like-you're-there art, helping demonstrate why its subject had such an impact — an approach Lemmons and her cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Old Guard) apply to expressing Houston's immense vocal talent. Among the key Whitney moments restaged: singing 'Home' during her 1983 stint on The Merv Griffin Show shortly after being signed by Davis, her slowed-down version of the American national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, busting out 'I Will Always Love You' at The Concert for a New South Africa in 1994 and her American Music Awards medley of 'I Loves You Porgy', 'And I Am Telling You' and 'I Have Nothing' that same year. Throughout the script, talk turns to breathing, challenges and the mechanics of crooning — belting out that above trio is dubbed "climbing Mount Everest without oxygen" — but seeing is believing.
Spying Ackie's arms outstretched, spreading far and wide as Houston reaches for those high notes, is a potent and understandably repeated sight. Still, unlike the singer at its centre, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is content with staying in expected territory. That makes for a rousing yet routine addition to the music biopic canon — and, because Lemmons and McCarten are committed to covering as much as possible, a rushed one as well despite its 146-minute running time. As proves the case of many famous figures who earn dramatisations of their lives, there's so much to include here that multiple movies could've easily eventuated. Again, plenty of other films about Houston have already. This jam-packed on-screen dance wants to have it all and show where Houston's broken heart went, but it doesn't burn deep enough to last.
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