Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody
Reviewed for Film Factual by Abe Friedtanzer
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: Anthony McCartens
Cast: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, and Clarke Peters
Screened at: AMC the Grove, LA, 12/20/22
Opens: December 23rd, 2022
The more famous someone is, the likelier it is that their life will be an open book, accessible to a curious public, especially in the age of social media and rampantly available information. Yet there are still pieces of a celebrity’s persona that remain hidden and may not be revealed until long after they are gone. There are also future generations who may be only passingly familiar with an artist or performer, and biopics can serve the purpose of educating them, even if not everything seen in a movie should be taken at face value. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a straightforward showcase of the incomparable talent’s life, one that wisely chooses to emphasize what it was that stood out about her most: her voice.
As she starts out performing alongside her singer mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), Whitney (Naomi Ackie) is quickly discovered by producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who sees her incredible potential and offers her the world. Over the course of her career, Whitney navigates a relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) that she must keep secret, a rocky marriage to musician Bobby Brown (Ashton Saunders), and the continual influence of her father John (Clarke Peters) in her professional life. Whitney is plagued by addiction but achieves incredible things, all before her untimely death at the age of forty-eight.
It’s been ten years since Houston’s passing, and her music remains tremendously influential and vibrant. This film begins in the 1980s and charts an unexpectedly linear path to 2012, a rare move for a biographical film, one that smartly sees her transforming, changing her look and the way in which she wrestles with her demons as her popularity grows. Not much time is wasted on expository developments or the contemplation of whether songs that will eventually become hits are worth her time, and the film contains multiple extended performance sequences that find Whitney belting her heart out to an adoring and impressed audience.
The best decision that this film makes is to keep the vocals of the real Whitney and utilize them to stunning effect. Ackie immerses herself fully into this role, and she truly comes alive during the scenes in which Whitney sings. Only in certain moments does it feel like she is lip-synching, and otherwise she moves and responds as if she is producing these incredible sounds. Like another recent music film written by Anthony McCarten, Bohemian Rhapsody, this film aims to capture the essence of its central performer, not to recreate it through mimicry that might be commendable but couldn’t possibly capture the real thing.
While its original title, I Wanna Dance with Somebody, felt sufficient in referencing Whitney, its new moniker appropriately puts the emphasis on the artist and not just any one song. This drama follows Whitney from her teenage years until just before her death, and she remains the focal point, with her voice resonating louder than a particular song that might be associated with her. It feels comprehensive and only starts to drag just before its emphatic finale, going out on a memorable note that suggests this may well have captured the important parts of Whitney’s story that constitute her legacy.
Ackie, who stood out in last year’s third season of Master of None, is a powerhouse, moving effortlessly from one phase of Whitney’s life and career to the next. Her ability to disappear into the character demonstrates her prowess, and this is surely not going to be the defining role that the thirty-year-old actress has considering a bright future ahead of her. In the supporting cast, Williams stands out as a devoted friend who always looks out for Whitney despite their dynamic changing in unexpected ways. This film is a relatively standard biopic, but one that treats its subject with care and produces an engaging and compelling narrative to pay tribute to her.
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B