December 25th, 2022
MOVIE: WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY
STARRING: NAOMI ACKIE, STANLEY TUCCI, ASHTON SANDERS, TAMARA TUNIE
DIRECTED BY: KASI LEMMONS
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 1 STAR (Out of 4)
At some point there should be an entire box-set of the music biopic. Walk the Line, Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, All Eyes on Me, Ray, Judy, Respect last year, Elvis this year, and on and on. And when do they stop? The more we get the worse they get and Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody might be the back breaker. It’s not that Houston- the legendary artist that we lost too soon- is not worthy of a movie. The problem is that her movie should not be this embarrassingly bad. The new response for all music biopics should be: “this could have been told better in a documentary”. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a by-the-numbers telling of an artists life and offers little to the legacy of Whitney Houston.
Playing the role of Houston is newcomer Naomi Ackie, who embodies the person with her style, sharp demeanor, and tenacity for success. What is not evident is how much of the singing is done and in moments where it’s obviously lip synching the performance loses all credibility. The screenplay- written by Bohemian Rhapsody scribe Anthony McCarten- isn’t interested in doing anything but the Wikipedia bullets points as well. We meet Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who was Houston’s girlfriend, but just as Whitney’s demanding parents did, her story is boxed out to keep the narrative moving. We gotta get to the contract signing with Clive Davis (a pleasant Stanley Tucci), or that moment when Whitney hears “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” the first time, or hears “I Will Always Love You” the first time, or meets Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), or hears “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”…for the first time. Each moment more contrived than the next.
The most shocking part of I Wanna Dance being bad is that it was made by the typically reliable Kasi Lemmons. Her past work on biopics such as Talk to Me and Harriet make her qualified to take it on but the final products has me wondering if anyone could salvage it? The production has the look of a VH1 made-for-TV-movie. The sets, scenarios and live-performances look shot in one day. The extras that get speaking moments are another level of cringe. A bartender telling Whitney she delivered the greatest performance ever at the American Music Awards. A group of autograph hawks that look like regulars in a McDonalds commercial. Nearly everything has a sheen of cheese coating the screen. It gets to the point where serious things occur, such as Houston’s addiction to cocaine or her toxic relationship with Brown and it all arrive out of left field.
Midway through the question lingers on who I Wanna Dance with Somebody is for and why audiences would enjoy this? The answer is that it’s a jukebox drama. A story where viewers can reminisce about the gossip they read in People Magazine or dance in their seat to a favorite Houston song. It’s still a painful two-hours and twenty-six minutes. And yet, is that the purpose of art? Does that do justice, to tell the whole story of the most talented singing voice of all time, and not decipher how it could end in such tragedy? Lemmons and McCarten are not particularly interested. Dramatic scenes move on. Characters arrive without us knowing names. The songs remain great. But knowing Whitney Houston is never a priority.
It’s ultimately sad for Ackie, who delivers a fine performance in spurts, revealing to be up to the task to represent Houston, but instead reduced to the motions. The hopes would be that I Wanna Dance with Somebody taps the nails into the coffins of music biopics. Elvis had a great lead performance but that was much too messy. That makes the genre 0-for-2 in 2022. I’ll still listen to the tunes. Just don’t make us sit through it again. Just tell us in a documentary.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY IS PLAYING IN THEATERS DECEMBER 25TH, 2022.
Written by: Leo Brady