2 out of 5 stars

Whitney Houston has always been ‘The Voice’. But she become the subject of “I wanna see the receipts” and “crack is whack” gifs after her 2002 Diane Sawyer interview, vehemently denying reports she’d spent over $730,000 on drugs. Whitney’s an icon and her life story is a tragedy. I was excited to see I Wanna Dance With Somebody because I was eager to know something deep and honest about her. I knew the broad strokes; incomparable vocals, a messy relationship with Bobby Brown, drug addiction, and a 2010 comeback which was equal parts inspiring and devastating. There’s more to her story than the Cliff Notes version I’d unconsciously absorbed from E! News over the years. Unfortunately, this film only offers an abridged take…

The trajectory of Whitney Houston’s life and career is readymade for a biographical drama. We have a charismatic protagonist, unimaginable early success, and opportunities to recreate recognizable moments in pop culture as our subject proves everyone who doubted them wrong while ascending to iconic status before falling from grace. Everything is there for an awards-baiting, emotionally resonant biopic. Beyond the genre’s inherent cliches, the raw material also includes a queer relationship, succeeding as a black artist accused of selling out by their own community, the commodification of oneself, and the impossible seduction of addiction, a siren song which overtakes all other responsibilities and better intentions.

The screenplay by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody) opts out of exploring these bigger themes and building a compelling narrative arc. Although it’s a triumph for queer representation that this biopic honestly portrays the nature of Whitney and her creative director Robyn Crawford’s relationship. As social media natives, we’re also better placed to empathise with the alienation she felt embodying ‘Whitney the brand’ and ‘Whitney the person’. Unfortunately, any reflection is done in quick lines in scenes too short to pack a real punch. Admittedly, the film does respond to the sellout questions and we see Whitney eloquently cutting down her detractors by reminding them she’s not their culture war toy but an empowered artist. Those scenes are cinematically verbose and biting, offering glimmers of what could’ve been a more compelling film.

To be clear, I’m glad this isn’t a film basking in the bad and the sad. Black stories are often steeped in suffering, as though black people never see or experience joy, success, and triumph. No, I’m disappointed because this doesn’t resonate with true feelings or revelations about the human psyche. It’s not too much to demand the movies we consume make us feel things and teach us about ourselves. Depth isn’t the sole domain of the art house. Last year’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Everything Everywhere All At Once, and Matilda were all enjoyable and accessible films filled with pathos, longing, and joy.

However, I Wanna Dance With Somebody gives audiences a series of vignettes ensuring we leave the cinema knowing all the major facts: Whitney Houston achieved seven back-to-back No.1 hits, earned a $100M recording contract, then segued into a successful film career. The story moves quickly with little signposting to guide audiences through the passage of time. Like most biopics, the film assumes you already know who Whitney is and care enough to read her Wikipedia entry afterwards, and so barrels through a highlights reel. Scenes start and end in the blink of an eye and, for narrative expediency, tension is built and cut in record time. One scene where Whitney’s father is threatening to sue her in a hospital bed cuts to his funeral! Overall, you never get enough time to be with the characters or truly dance with her.

Naomi Ackie (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) does great work playing Whitney, despite being hampered by the script. She lip-syncs with gusto and, at times, you believe you’re seeing the magic that propelled Whitney to superstardom. As a younger version of Whitney, she’s coquettish and bold, daydreaming about becoming a superstar. Ackie handles the big moments well. Whitney’s “Star-spangled Banner” performance is bound to be a favourite scene you’ll return to. And in the behind-the-scenes moments, she portrays an authoritative Whitney. While the film erroneously implies she didn’t write any songs (she’s actually credited with co-writing five tracks from her discography), Ackie’s Whitney is decisive about which songs go on her album and how she can embody and elevate them to showcase the full majesty of her instrument. She demands they slow down the national anthem and tours relentlessly; partly to offset poor financial decisions by her father, but mostly because she is a born performer. Ackie embodies the fullness of a person keen to dazzle audiences on stage. Even though we never get enough to truly understand what’s going on in her head, her physicality betrays the strain of Whitney’s addictions and determination to be better. Stanley Tucci, one of Hollywood’s treasures, also does no wrong as record producer Clive Davis and Nafessa Williams steals scenes as the aforementioned Robyn.

Unlike Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005), this story doesn’t have a soft landing point where our hero is triumphant. Over the end credits, we’re told Whitney died of a drug-related drowning). To remedy this, the film starts and ends with Whitney’s 1994 American Music Awards medley of “I Loves You Porgy” and “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”. This is the scene. Director Kasi Lemmon’s visuals are so dynamic I got sucked into this moment, eyes welling and with a wide grin. But while it’s a captivating moment, this isn’t the exclamation point the film thinks it is. It’s a triumphant scene topping off a shaky whole.

I wasn’t wholly impressed by Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. It reminded me of the other big biopic of 2022, Elvis. My feelings for that movie are similar. They feel like excessively long trailers for better-conceived, more robust versions of themselves. I’ll definitely have them play in the background on a lazy Sunday afternoon, but I feel no closer to their subjects having seen them. As records of history and celebrations of icons, the modern biopic formula again fails us.

USA | 2022 | 146 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Kasi Lemmons.
writer: Anthony McCarten.
starring: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams & Clarke Peters.