I tried to explain to my teenage son how big Whitney Houston was in her day. It wasn't easy. “As big as Taylor Swift?” he asked. Bigger, I said. He had no frame of reference for that, due to the way the music industry has changed and how the methods people use to consume music have altered the landscape. Artists aren't massive in quite the same way these days. Houston was a rare breed anyway, an artist who appealed to men and women, adults and children, the young and the old, and people of all races. She dominated the charts and the box office. You couldn't listen to the radio for ten minutes without hearing one of her songs. That made it all the more tragic when addiction cut her life short. I Wanna Dance with Somebody dramatizes all of this without any real perspective. Although certainly watchable, the movie is a disappointment.
Naomi Ackie plays Whitney, and she's phenomenal. If nothing else, the film gets that casting choice 100% correct. Early scenes show her receiving singing lessons from her strict mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) and falling in love with Robin Crawford (Nafessa Williams). Since so much effort went into denying their relationship at the time, it's a nice surprise that the film – which counts manager/sister-in-law Pat Houston among the producers – finally acknowledges it. An opportunity to perform for music impresario Clive Davis (a perfectly cast Stanley Tucci) gets Whitney signed to Arista Records. Before long, she's breaking records, turning out a string of enormous hits.
Those early scenes are the best part of I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Once she breaks through, the movie goes through a litany of Wikipedia-style highlights from her career: singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, starring in The Bodyguard, marrying Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), becoming addicted to drugs, etc. That's all the plot is, a recitation of events that any fan is already completely familiar with. Oddly, given how much screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody) wants to cram in, he leaves out two of the most notable episodes from the late stage of Houston's life, specifically her infamous “crack is whack” interview with Diane Sawyer and the disastrous reality TV program she had with Brown.
Much of this is awkwardly rushed through. For example, shortly after being told that she wants to make a movie, Davis hands Whitney a script for The Bodyguard. She asks who the star is, he says Kevin Costner, and she tells him that she'll do it. Later, Whitney and Bobby have a fight, and in the next scene she's suddenly doing crack. The whole film plays like this, with no effort to dive into anything being shown. Whitney and Davis had a famously tight bond, but that isn't explored in depth. Similarly, we get a simplistic portrayal of Bobby Brown, who is largely demonized here, made out to be a womanizer, an addict, and a user. Yes, he was those things to a degree, yet surely he had more than one dimension.
If I Wanna Dance with Somebody's approach is frustratingly shallow – and it is – the damage is mitigated by Naomi Ackie's outstanding work. The actress resembles Whitney and nails her vocal cadence, both in singing and talking. They could not have found a better person for the role. Ackie's performance is more than an imitation, though. She works to provide some of the substance that the script lacks, and shines during the musical sequences, which are energetically staged by director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou). With better material, awards notice might have been inescapable.
In 2017, director Kevin Macdonald made a documentary called Whitney (available to rent right here) that covers the same material. It does so in far greater detail, creating a meaningful portrait of Houston as both superstar and human being, and also serving as a deeply-felt eulogy for her. Walking away from that doc, you feel a sense of sadness in your bones. Whitney Houston was one of a kind. We all suffered a tremendous loss when she passed. That's the picture to see if you want to understand her case. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is the lite version.
out of four
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is rated PG-13 for drug content, brief strong language, smoking, and suggestive references. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.