Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Premise: A biographical drama about pop singer Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie), tracing her career from modest beginnings singing with a church choir to the heights of show business stardom and her struggles with substance abuse.
What Works: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a tribute piece intended to celebrate Whitney Houston’s musical legacy and the film ought to appeal to her fans. Naomi Ackie impresses in the lead role. Although Ackie doesn’t do much of her own singing she does convey Whitney Houston’s stage presence and the qualities that made her a star. What’s most impressive about Ackie’s performance is the way she controls her voice and gait. The story covers about three decades of material and Ackie plays Houston in wildly different points in her life, from a sheltered young woman to a drug addicted superstar and Ackie adjusts her performance accordingly. A subtle but important detail is the way Ackie manages her voice, accounting for the way Houston’s drug use damaged her vocal abilities. The technical qualities of I Wanna Dance with Somebody are also impressive especially the editing. Ackie lip-synchs to Houston’s recordings and the illusion is convincing. The musical sequences are also impressive in the way they intercut stage performances, studio sessions, and music video shoots. These scenes recreate some of Houston’s iconic looks and the costuming and production design look authentically of their era.
What Doesn’t: Like a lot of recent musical biopics, I Wanna Dance with Somebody has to be understood as a branding project. This film was produced by (among many others) Clive Davis and Patricia Houston—who are characters in the film—and I Wanna Dance with Somebody exists to rehabilitate Whitney Houston’s public image after the disastrous late period of her life that culminated in the singer’s untimely death. As such, the filmmakers deliberately soften the rough edges of Houston’s life. Viewers who are familiar with the 2018 documentary Whitney will note some of the discrepancies, especially the way this film dramatizes Houston’s relationship with daughter Bobbi Kristina Brown and omits any reference to the reality series Being Bobby Brown. The filmmakers intend to give Whitney Houston’s life a Hollywood ending and they do that but in a way that compromises the picture’s integrity. I Wanna Dance with Somebody follows the rags-to-riches-to-rehab formula seen in a lot of show business biopics and while that’s true of Houston’s life the film runs through the highlights of her biography without really revealing anything about Houston as a person. For that matter, everybody in the film is exactly who they initially appear to be and no one has any complexity or depth. As part of its effort to memorialize Houston’s legacy, the film repeatedly claims that she was the voice of her generation but it doesn’t substantiate that claim in the drama or interrogate what it means.
Bottom Line: I Wanna Dance with Somebody succeeds in celebrating Whitney Houston’s music and it takes the viewer through her greatest hits. But the film has to be understood as a branding exercise first and a work of art a distant second. There’s no depth to this movie and viewers interested in learning about Houston would be better off seeking out the 2018 documentary.
Episode: #933 (January 1, 2023)