I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022)
This Christmas, celebrate the untold story of an icon.
“From the writer of Bohemian Rhapsody” has to be one of the least effective ways to market a movie. Unfortunately, in the case of the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance with Somebody, it’s also the most honest. Every pitfall that was apparent in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody is replicated in Kasi Lemmons’ film. From the refusal to dig deeply into the truly unpleasant aspects of Whitney’s life, to the movie being confined to a bunch of very good replications of some of Houston’s iconic musical moments. It even defines itself around a single moment — Whitney’s medley at the 1994 American Music Awards — just as Bohemian Rhapsody decided that the audience needed a shot-for-shot remake of Queen’s performance at Live Aid.
Tired and sanitized biopics just keep happening. At least Rocketman (2019) had the decency to straight-up claim elements of fantasy; it was overwhelmingly controlled by Elton John and his rampant self-pity (post-war England was miserable for everyone, not just you, Reginald). In I Wanna Dance with Somebody, writer Anthony McCarten manages to avoid almost all of the destructive behaviors and events which led to Houston’s death in favor of a YouTube best-of-performances playlist.
The film begins with Whitney (Naomi Ackie) just out of high school and singing in her mother’s church group. Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie, who was the narrator of Kasi Lemmons’ brilliant gothic noir, Eve’s Bayou) is a famous singer in her own right. She’s telling Whitney that “every song is a story” and so on, and to remember that singing comes from the head, the heart, and, I presume, the diaphragm. Cissy’s marriage to John (Clarke Peters) is fraught, and Whitney hides herself away from their loud arguments by smoking some weed with her brothers.
Whitney meets college student and eventually her lover and long-time business associate, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, who must have something for Whitney biopics as this is her second). She moves in with her and, for a short while, is happy.
When Whitney is discovered by music industry powerhouse Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), she is given what she has always wanted, a chance to sing professionally. From that moment on, the audience is exposed to Whitney’s triumphs and heartbreaks in the inanest fashion imaginable.
Characters come and go quite randomly. Cissy, who was an essential part of the beginning of the film, disappears for a huge amount of time. Robyn is obviously sidelined by the entry of Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), Whitney’s siblings barely rate a mention. The only character with any sustained relationship with her is Clive Davis. This is somewhat of a boon for the film because Stanley Tucci is excellent and provides much-needed warmth in a piece with almost none of it (certainly not until the contrived ending).
The film does everything it can to avoid the reality of Whitney’s life by skating over her drug dependency, Bobby Brown’s violence, and her own propensity for self-destruction. Whitney spent her whole career looking for empowering anthems but, in reality, did little to empower herself. Why is Whitney messed up? Well, you’ll have to guess because the film isn’t going to tell you unless it’s making up some stories about her father mismanaging her (yes, the company lost millions of dollars, and John was a spendthrift, but he wasn’t in charge of the day to day running). Was it the grueling concert tours? Was it the rejection by the Black community for singing “white” pop (completely overlooking the gospel albums she released)? Was it the paparazzi? Was it Bobby Brown abusing and cheating on her? (Well, the film does everything it can to make Bobby seem not all that bad, including writing a scene where Whitney claims the drug addiction really wasn’t down to him). Because the film refuses to land on any kind of definitive answer, it seems to imply that Whitney’s downfall was her own weakness. Not particularly uplifting or fair (then again, Bohemian Rhapsody did the same thing to Mercury).
There are a couple of saving graces to the film. Naomi Ackie, Lady Macbeth (2016), is genuinely excellent, the British actor managing to bring pathos to a mostly inert script and doing a fine job in recreating Whitney’s iconic performances. Filmmaker Lemmons’ attention to detail in costuming and Houston’s specific style of movement gives Ackie a chance to do more than lip-synch the performances — she inhabits them. Stanley Tucci’s Clive Davis is one of the only characters who has a sustained and consistent presence, and Tucci’s performance humanizes Whitney in a way the film tends not to.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody also shares some of the pitfalls of Judy (2019). These women were icons — Houston sold millions of albums and really was “The Voice” — but by trying to muddle through their personal demons without being bracingly honest, they sell the artists short.
Outside of Naomi Ackie and Stanley Tucci’s performances and some scenes that are competently directed by Lemmons (who is really capable of so much better), I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a disservice to the memory of Whitney Houston. Make a playlist, watch videos, dance to her music. That’s a better way to remember her. I Wanna Dance with Somebody has got nothing, nothing, nothing, to add to Whitney’s legacy.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is released through Sony Pictures Australia