There was perhaps no greater musical talent of her generation than the late Whitney Houston. Even just her name coming up in conversation will send a whole host of spectacular songs and powerful performances ringing through your head. She was one of the most recognizable singers of the era for a reason as she brought life to every note of every melody she took on. Thus, it was inevitable that Hollywood would set their sights on making a biopic about her. With that being said, it is important to note that Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is not the first such work. There was the 2015 Lifetime film Whitney that, while sufficiently well-directed by Angela Bassett, was very much a television movie and ultimately just felt far too hollow. By comparison, there is much that this latest dramatization does better. However, this is damning with faint praise as it still ends up being besought by the trappings of the musical biopic and loses sight of the smaller moments that fight to provide some insight into Houston as a person. Instead, it reduces her to a checklist of a life.
Comprehensive to a fault, I Wanna Dance With Somebody covers Houston’s rise to stardom and subsequent struggles with addiction that would lead to her tragic death in 2012. She is played here by Naomi Ackie who has done strong previous work in everything from intriguing films like Lady Macbeth to ones that are far less so like Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. When we first see Houston, she is being trained by her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) in a promising scene that shows what could have been had the film been more patient and willing to sit with its characters instead of speeding on. Much of this is due to how both Ackie and Tunie are solid performers, capturing comedic yet cutting moments that make these characters initially seem like they may be more complex. Alas, the film has a path to follow and there is little that can be done to stop it. After getting signed by Stanely Tucci‘s Clive Davis, who oddly becomes the moral conscience of the film, Houston’s career and life are launched into the stratosphere. She brings her partner Robyn (Nafessa Williams) and father John (Clarke Peters), who each don’t particularly like the other, along with her on this journey that initially seems to be a joyous one. Yet hanging over everything is that we know this is going to end in tragedy that will take hold of Houston.
Despite all the ways that Ackie tries to bring a more compassionate depth to this character, everything plays out with an emphasis on hitting milestones as opposed to reflecting on people. Recreations of everything from Houston’s music videos to the Super Bowl performance and a snapshot of her time working on the film The Bodyguard are dutifully doled out. It covers a lot of narrative ground, but there is never the same room for more emotional moments to sink in. The story as helmed by Anthony McCarten, who previously penned the woeful Bohemian Rhapsody, doesn’t actually feel written, but rather transcribed. While there is nothing wrong with immersing yourself in the historical moments of a subject’s life, the film has skipped the immersive part and instead just focused on covering as much as is physically possible over 146 minutes. It remains dead set on coasting off the sporadic jolts of recognition without ever putting the time or care into looking beyond them. For every brief glimpse we get of something more measured and emotionally driven, there are five other plots that we have to hurry to get to. Where Houston’s relationship with Bobby Brown, played by a similarly compelling actor in Ashton Sanders, has more fraught complexity, it also soon gets lost in the shuffle of needing to get to the next scene. While not unexpected considering McCarten’s resume, it is still disappointing to see this in particular done so haphazardly.
All this ends up doing a disservice to both Ackie and Houston herself. Everything is so broadly sketched that the story is less painted by numbers as much as it is merely tracing over the outlines. If you look hard enough, you can start to just make out some profound points in time. The problem remains that this requires a great deal of strain as they are so scattered and superficial that none of them ever stand out. Even when these moments do arise, the film works against itself in how they are presented. This isn’t in terms of the direction of the scenes themselves, as Lemmons has a sharp eye for creating some revealing and striking compositions in the more quiet, intimate moments. Rather, it is the haphazard editing and the overbearing generic score that proves increasingly grating. One such scene comes when Houston talks with Davis about her growing struggles. It could have been a breath of fresh air for how focused it was on the precise emotional beats as opposed to the broad narrative ones. Ackie captures the internal tumult of the character in what she doesn’t say as much as what she does, pulling back the curtain ever so slightly on some of what was troubling her. Disappointingly, the moment is cut away from far too soon and was compromised by a score that sounds dangerously close to temp music that was just left in. What should have been an emotional high point falls flat, leaving little to no sense of its lasting significance.
Yet we must trudge to an ending that is already set and inexorably drives everything that precedes it. If written well and with the same care as its direction, this could have conveyed a sense of more genuine tragedy. Regrettably, for all the ways the performances try to eschew convention for a bit more substance, it is a losing battle from start to finish. The most engaging aspects of the story, a subtle look or the weight of a weary confession, are all too fleeting in the march forward through time. As we get to this ending, it is jarring in how suddenly it is upon us. Even as the final scenes manage to bring a surprising and almost moving sense of grace, the rest of the path that preceded it remains far too rote. It is all mechanical and, when released in the aftermath of what we have learned from the 2018 documentary about Houston’s life, borders on being disingenuous. Though there could be justifiable reasons that this film didn’t reflect on all the troubling revelations of that prior work, there remains an unnerving sense that we are being shown a fraction of the full picture here. The impact of everything is lessened, and the portrait is left incomplete, like a shadow of a person as opposed to the person themselves. Whitney Houston will forever be remembered as a singular talent, but the emotionally inert I Wanna Dance with Somebody will not.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is in theaters starting December 23.