I Wanna Dance with Somebody Review: A Essential Whitney Houston Biopic

Naomi Ackie is dubbing for her life, but every scene in Kasi Lemmons’ bio screams “from the author of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody'” even louder.

Kasi Lemmons’ well-acted but ridiculously hackneyed Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a music biopic so expansive and choppy it makes Jersey Boys feel like All that Jazz. It’s an anonymous portrait of a unique artist – a by-the-numbers “Behind the Music” episode that takes 146 minutes to say almost nothing about a unique voice. Not even “Bohemian Rhapsody” was so obviously written by the guy who wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as Anthony McCarten’s algorithmic script skips the various sections of Houston’s Wikipedia page with all the flow of a scratched greatest hits CD.

Here is young Whitney as a choir soloist at the New Jersey Church, where she discovers her love for music. There she is at Arista Records headquarters listening to the demo track for her future hit single “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (“It’s about wanting to dance with someone,” she says appreciatively). Once her career takes off, the rest of her life boils down to a less and less sophisticated set of reactions to what happened in the previous scene, which expresses less Houston’s struggle to be everything than the desperation of this film anyone something.

Whitney’s militaristic father demands that she break up with her secret girlfriend Robyn and play straight for the public? Cut to: Whitney announces that she had sex with Jermaine Jackson. Whitney can’t take the criticism that she’s not black enough? Cut to: Her flirtation with rising R&B star Bobby Brown at the Soul Train Awards. Whitney calms Robyn’s panic with a quiet, “Isn’t it like we’re getting married?” Cut to: A scene we can predict so well that actually watching it seems redundant (although it serves as a valuable reminder not to tell anyone getting married cheesy enough to ask the question from the back seat of a stretch limousine).

Oh, well, it’s not like there’s much hope for Lemmon’s bio at this point. Even by the time Whitney is spotted by Clive Davis at a New Jersey nightclub (an incessant moan of a “Do you know that new sound you’re looking for?” moment), “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” has already become one Self-parodying her own genre that I’ve been waiting for Houston to do a duet with Dewey Cox. At the very least, that would have provided an unexpected touch in an estate-sanctioned film that was fully authorized within an inch of its life.



And yet the pathetic laziness of the film’s construction isn’t quite enough to dampen the spirited zeal of its cast. That starts, of course, with rising star Naomi Ackie (“Lady Macbeth”), whose radiant lead performance weaves octaves of emotion into a script full of flat tones so convincingly that you’ll likely often forget she lip-synched Houston’s songs. Reserved one minute, domineering the next, and always possessed of a confidence she can’t quite convey to those around her, Ackie’s version of Houston would have been a wonderful character if this film had cared about the singer as much as it is in their songs.

Apparently, Whitney’s character development slows shortly after she turns 19 and becomes Clive Davis’ new favorite client (the human, enterprising Davis is played by a very Stanley Tucci Stanley Tucci). It’s only in her earlier days — through which “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” races about 15 minutes — do we get a clearer sense of what she wants, where she’s coming from, and what she might be afraid to leave behind. Whitney’s relationship with her mother Cissy (the ever-reliable Tamara Tunie) is one of the film’s greatest strengths, never more so than in the scenes where she forces her teenage daughter to make the most of her God-given talents.

Is Cissy, a lifelong backup singer who feels overshadowed by nieces Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, putting undue pressure on Whitney to succeed where she failed? It is possible. But Cissy’s over-the-top ambition never comes at the expense of her maternal tenderness, and Tunie’s carefully balanced performance speaks volumes about the source of Whitney’s strength, just as Clarke Peters’ succinct but unflattering look at the superstar’s hyperpatriarchal father speaks volumes about Whitney’s struggle to own it Strength backstage.

As degrading as this film can feel, being made with the full support of the singer’s brother and sister-in-law makes it all the more devastating that her father comes across as such a money-mongering woman (it’s funny that Cissy doesn’t age by a day the nearly 40-year span of the script as John Houston evolves from virile DILF to tomb keeper, as if sin itself were ravaging his skin).

During these formative teenage years, Whitney also befriends Robyn Crawford (a convincing Nafessa Williams, who ironically played Bobby Brown’s pregnant ex-girlfriend in the Angela Bassett-directed Lifetime film Whitney, one of the earlier Houston-based bio-projects that “Deeply disappointed the fans and those closest to her,” reads a cheeky line in the I Wanna Dance With Somebody press release. The two cross paths in a cute encounter written with all the excitement of swiping a Metrocard, but Ackie and Williams embrace the ease of their characters’ mutual attraction.

(LtoR) Stanley Tucci and Naomi Ackie in TRISTAR Pictures I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEONE

“I want to dance with someone”

Emily Aragones

The singer’s relationship with Crawford, which was sadly relegated to rumors until after Houston’s death, is at least somewhat recaptured here as – if not the greatest love of all – the rare circumstance in Houston’s life when love gave her without taking. What Houston Crawford gave back is less clear, as this film is too busy jumping between bullet points of Houston’s biography to bother trying to figure out how she felt about her. Ostracized and neglected as Crawford may have been by Houston’s family, it’s hard to imagine Houston being as cruelly indifferent to even her ex-girlfriend and creative director as she appears here.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is cluttered and signed, tapping into Whitney’s sense of being spread out among too many people at once as an excuse to make her a warp-speed passenger telling her own life story. Things eventually move fast enough that the scenes flow into one another across the soundtrack, the beats of McCarten’s checklist-like script blurred by the constant undercurrents of audience noise that carry the film from one concert to the next.

The film’s jack-of-all-trades approach makes it impossible for Eve’s Bayou director Lemmons to assert her usual control or anchor even the most tragic moments in Houston’s life with the seriousness they deserve (the scene where she dies during the film having a miscarriage in the middle of a shot while filming The Bodyguard feels almost as artificial as the CGI fighter jets screeching over their Super Bowl performance).

Grateful as fans may be that this glossy biopic doesn’t go full “blonde,” the part where Bobby turns violent would hardly be noticed if it weren’t for the fleetingness of Ashton Sanders’ concentrated performance, while allowing more time for the covert one how Whitney bought her drugs than why she started taking them in the first place. And while Whitney’s relationship with her daughter is too pure for even the most superficial biopics to diminish her love and sadness, those feelings exist in purely abstract terms and don’t feel any more nuanced or personal than they would have had it not been for the previous two hours of foreplay .

“Every song is a story,” someone says, “if it’s not a story, it’s not a song.” All-time chart-toppers like “When You Believe,” “Higher Love,” and “I Will Always Love You” are definitely Songs, so where are the stories behind them? Watching “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” I couldn’t help but wonder if McCarten-esque karaoke biopics — which unfold more like animated jukeboxes than full-bodied dramas — don’t honor their themes as much as they manage to do let the audience sing along to her life.

Maybe people want to see a movie for the first time and feel like they can already enunciate every line, because the real subject of these music biopics isn’t the icons that inspired them, but the enjoyment we continue to take from theirs Work… and the flowing money, which in turn inspires our rediscovered enthusiasm from us. We used to have greatest hits CDs, and now we’ve glorified cosplay. And yet the cosplay is obviously great here, and so are the hits.

“To sing with the gods,” says one character, “sometimes you need a ladder.” Or maybe you just need the right hand.

Grade: C

Sony Pictures brings Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody to theaters on Friday, December 23.

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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/12/whitney-houston-i-wanna-dance-with-somebody-movie-review-1234793626/ I Wanna Dance with Somebody Review: A Essential Whitney Houston Biopic

Lindsay Lowe

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