I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Stars: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters, Ashton Sanders.

In I Wanna Dance with Somebody, Naomi Ackie has to show us Whitney Houston across decades, and at every emotional extreme, but she does it all so well that you stop seeing the acting and just accept Ackie as Houston.

Fans of the late, great Whitney Houston will not really learn anything new or particularly surprising from this so-so biopic of the late singer. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a more sanitised look at her life mainly due to the involvement of Houston’s estate in the production and the inclusion of Clive Davis, the head of Arista Records, as one of the producers. Thus, there is little that is controversial or negative that may prove damaging to the brand.  

I Wanna Dance With Somebody has been written by Oscar nominated scribe Anthony McCarten, who also wrote the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, and it comes across as little more than a paint by numbers scroll through her Wikipedia page, touching upon all the high points of her career. The film opens with her singing in the local church choir under the guidance of her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), a hard taskmaster who pushed her to be the very best, and her discovery by music industry powerhouse Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) while singing at a New York night club.  

This film is a celebration of her life and her music and covers her extraordinarily successful chart-topping singing career in which she achieved an unprecedented seven consecutive number one hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 Charts and went on to become one of the most successful recording artists of our time selling over 200 million records. There is also her acclaimed performance at the 1994 American Music Awards, her singing of the national anthem at the 1991 Superbowl, the filming of her breakthrough movie The Bodyguard (although the film dances around those rumours of an onset romance between her and star Kevin Costner).  

The film also superficially tackles her relationship with best friend and longtime advisor and business associate Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, from tv series Black Lightning, etc) which her minders and advisors tried to keep hushed up for fear of it ruining her wholesome image. And McCarten’s script flies past the latter stages of her career with her tumultuous relationship with bad boy rapper Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) and the allegations of domestic violence, and her self-destructive descent into drugs and periods of rehabilitation which ultimately led to her untimely death in 2012. 

There are some strong performances here though that keep the audience invested in the journey. The film is anchored by the performance of British actress Naomi Ackie (from Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker, etc) in her biggest role to date. Ackie is a revelation as Whitney Houston and she immerses herself into the role, capturing the singer’s looks and movement and recreating some of her more iconic performances. The film uses Houston’s vocal performances for the most part and the lip synching that matches her mezzo soprano vocals with Ackie’s miming is superbly integrated. Tucci is well cast as Davis and brings an avuncular quality and warmth to the role as he carefully guides her career. The scenes between these two are some of the best moments in the film, revealing a tender and respectful relationship between the pair. 

Tunie (who has spent several years playing the medical examiner on the long running police procedural Law & Order: SVU) is strong as Whitney’s demanding but supportive mother who encourages her to use her voice and to treat every song as if it is a story of its own. Clarke Peters (from tv series The Wire, etc) is also good as her father, with whom she had a fractious relationship; he became her self-appointed business manager and basically financially ruined her and Peters brings the requisite touch of sleaze to his performance. Surprisingly Sanders leaves little impression on the material with his bland performance as Brown and many other peripheral characters, including members of her own family, are given short shrift. 

The direction from Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, etc) is surprisingly straight forward, and lacks the flair, flashy flamboyant visual style and kinetic energy that Baz Luhrmann brough to his recent biopic of Elvis. This rather inert film would have benefitted enormously from some of that energy. The production design from Gerald Sullivan is good as are Charlese Antoinette Jones’ superb costumes, and the film has been nicely shot by Barry Ackroyd. 

I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a generic, formulaic jukebox musical. Of course, the soundtrack is peppered with many of her memorable hits, and the soundtrack should sell by the bucketloads. But those wanting something with a bit more depth and insight would do well to check out a couple of superb documentaries – Nick Broomfield’s warts and all look at her life and tragic death with his 2017 documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me? or Kevin Macdonald’s 2018 documentary simply titled Whitney – for a raw, more honest and detailed look at her complicated life and tragic fall from grace. 

★★★

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