A star is born. While Naomi Ackie’s brief role in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will be remembered by a segment of fans, her true breakout performance is in Kasi Lemmons’ musical biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Portraying the most decorated female artist of all-time, Whitney Houston, Ackie lip-syncs like there’s no tomorrow, and embodies the indomitable spirit of the amazingly-talented singer, whose potential was fully fulfilled for too brief a time.
It’s a shame that I Wanna Dance with Somebody is so slim and inconsequential, though. Penned by the typically-reliable four-time Oscar-nominated writer Anthony McCarten, leaning unfortunately too far into scattershot Bohemian Rhapsody territory, the film attempts to encapsulate Whitney’s entire life and career into a neat 2 1/2-hour package. It was never going to work. As the screenplay skips through the speed bumps in her life without stopping to take stock of how it impacts Whitney, Lemmons struggles to keep up. The result is a film that feels like a series of vignettes for a Lifetime drama, not a celebration of such a beloved figure.
Developed with the full support of the Whitney Houston estate, and produced by legendary music producer Clive Davis, the man credited with discovering Whitney and developing her signature sound. Of course, with that kind of backing, this movie never goes quite as dark as Whitney’s real-life darkest moments. And naturally, Davis is portrayed as Whitney’s best friend and sage advisor, played by Stanley Tucci, no less.
Skipping around like a CD with a scratch in it, each scene is little more than a snapshot, and typically an immediate response to what just happened in Whitney’s life. We’re introduced to Whitney’s mother, the formidable singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), and tough but conniving father John (Clarke Peters). The film even acknowledges the same-sex relationship between a young Whitney and her best friend, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). We see the first time Clive Davis hears her sing solo, a stirring rendition of “Greatest Love of All”. Cut to the contract signing and her instant rise to fame. Seriously, we don’t see hardly anything of the happiest moments in this peak time in Whitney’s career, so eager is the screenplay to get to the inevitable downfall.
And so Whitney begins to take heat for not being “Black enough”, which she responds to with a harsh interview and a disastrous marriage to bad boy Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). The press was curious about her and Robyn being in a gay relationship? Next scene finds Whitney pushing her then-lover into the friend zone. Of course, drugs enter the picture, entirely out of nowhere and free of any context whatsoever. Is it the pressure to be everything to everyone that pushes Whitney over the edge? Is it just Bobby’s terrible influence? We don’t really know because the film never settles down long enough for us to know.
By following the rhythms of too-many half-assed biopics, I Wanna Dance with Somebody attempts to be whatever any viewer wants it to be, and thus accomplishes nothing. What’s a shame is that individual scenes and performances were amazingly well. Ackie is brilliant, especially early on before Whitney’s fame as she’s figuring out who she wants to be. Working with Clive, we see the scrapper in her, the girl who had a tough upbringing in a family full of superstars like Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, and a godmother in Aretha Franklin. Talk about pressure! She also has to contend with what could be perceived as jealousy from her mother, who sees in Whitney the talent and mega-star potential that she could never achieve.
It’s unfair to dump everything on McCarten and his mediocre script. Lemmons deserves some of the blame here, as well. In her second-straight disappointing film after 2019’s Harriet, Lemmons bakes in the cheese at every turn. Some of her visual choices are perplexing, with the worst example coming on the night Whitney performed the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV, which Lemmons chooses to shoot like a commercial for Whitney Houston brand athletic wear.
However disappointing, we’re never too far away from a reminder of just how good this movie could’ve been. Houston’s jaw-dropping live medley “I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, and “I Have Nothing”, songs that most can’t do individually much less as a package, will leave you absolutely breathless and the audience in Heaven. Even though I Wanna Dance with Somebody is beneath the sum greatness of Whitney Houston’s life, the music is always there to uplift. But you don’t need this movie to hear Whitney’s discography, do you?
I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in theaters on December 23rd.