Producers: Denis O’Sullivan, Jeff Kalligheri, Anthony McCarten, Pat Houston, Clive Davis, Larry Mestel, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Matt Jackson, Christina Papagjika and Matthew Salloway Director: Kasi Lemmons Screenplay: Anthony McCarten Cast: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters Bria Danielle Singleton and Ashton Sanders Distributor: Sony/TriStar
Whitney Houston has received biographical treatment on screen before–most notably in Angela Bassett’s 2015 LifeTime film and Kenneth Macdonald’s 2018 documentary. What distinguishes Kasi Lemmon’s new biopic more than anything else is the proliferation of musical numbers, most of them made up of Houston’s own tracks refurbished for auditorium sound systems (and played, it might be added, at high volume). Otherwise “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” hits on the major points in Houston’s career in fairly standard fashion, emphasizing the high ones and not neglecting the low ones, although it treats the latter in somewhat sanitized fashion. What most characterizes it—unsurprisingly, given some of the names among the producers–is the title of last year’s Aretha Franklin biography: “Respect.”
One emphasis of the story that might surprise (and antagonize) some viewers is Houston’s deep friendship with Robyn Crawford, the young woman whom she met as a high schooler and to whom she remained close (to the discomfort of her family) for many years. The film begins with their initial meeting, and though Naomi Ackie (as Houston) and Nafessa Williams (as Crawford) are rather too old to be believable as teens, their scenes together later have a ring of authenticity, even if one, in which Crawford wrecks an apartment, even attacking a vacuum cleaner, in response to what she perceives as a slight, is a fairly typical genre cliché. (Of course the relationship was already treated, in fictionalized form, in Andrew Dosunmu’s Netflix film “Beauty” earlier this year.)
Otherwise the film follows a pretty predictable template. There’s the pushiness of Houston’s mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), a singer herself, who recognizes her daughter’s extraordinary talent and manipulates her first solo appearance for record executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who immediately takes her on and helps her become an immediate sensation. There’s the venality of her philandering father John (Clarke Peters), a super-controlling type who robbed his daughter as her manager and still wanted more. And there’s the disaster of her marriage to singer Bobby Brown (Aston Sanders), whose brazen mistreatment and infidelity she for some reason endured from the very start. But like her relationship with Crawford, the misbegotten union with Brown is evidence that the subtitled song is correct–Houston always needed a partner for emotional support.
Some attention is given to Houston’s film work, most notably her first picture “The Bodyguard,” the sequence about which includes some cheeky remarks about Kevin Costner, as well as one clip of him from the final product. But the emphasis is on her singing, and there are extended recreations of some of her most memorable appearances, including her television debut on the Merv Griffin Show, the rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at Super Bowl XXV in 1991 and, as a summation, her three-part number at the 1994 American Music Awards, all presented glitzily by production designer Gerald Sullivan, costumer Charlese Antoinette Jones and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. In fact, though the film doesn’t ignore her unraveling on tour in the later years or her drug use, it uses that last appearance as a triumphant summation at the close, relegating the unhappy circumstances of her death to a muted caption.
Ackie does an excellent job of recreating all those numbers, capturing Houston’s stage persona and convincingly lip-synching to her tracks. (It would have been better, though, for editor Daysha Broadway to have cut some of the shots of adoring audiences, or of friends and family member jumping in glee while watching her on television; they probably add a good five minutes to the bloated two-and-a-half hour running-time.) Ackie is also dramatically effective, though occasionally histrionically over-the-top, the true diva. The major supporting players—Williams, Tunie, Peters, Ashton—are fine even if their characters remain on a single note throughout. Tucci portrays Davis as what must be the most saintly record producer ever put on film; he has as many reaction shots as cute dogs do in a lot of movies, in most of which his slight smile has a cherubic feel, and the late-film revelation that he’s gay is treated playfully. Of course, Davis is among the producers, so the depiction is explicable.
If you just want to hear lots of Houston’s music presented in auditorium sound, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” will do the trick; it’s rather like a Wikipedia article with a soundtrack. But if you’re looking for a more serious examination of her life, Macdonald’s excellent documentary is the better bet.