For a movie about The Voice, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody strains to find its own. While undeniably long on title (in case you forgot who sang one of her signature bops), it’s sadly short on actual substance.
We first meet Ms. Houston (Naomi Ackie) in the church choir alongside mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie). She comes from notable musical lineage in that Cissy was a successful backup singer (who never quite broke out on her own) and Dionne Warwick is a first cousin. The pipes of Whitney are clearly a precious commodity as Cissy and business conscious and stern father John (Clarke Peters) prod her into the biz. Famed record exec Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) takes Whitney under his wing and she rises to unheard of stardom for a female solo artist beginning in the mid 80s.
There are potential controversies immediately. Whitney’s romance with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) is jettisoned since it won’t match the girl next door image. While Robyn becomes her trusted assistant, Whitney’s (or Nippy as the family and close friends call her) entanglements are a frequent source of consternation. This briefly applies to Jermaine Jackson, but especially when her and R&B bad boy Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) get serious.
Jumping from career and personal highlights to lowlights, the screenplay from Andrew McCarten can feel as erratic as the title subject’s increasingly worrisome behavior. The writer penned Bohemian Rhapsody and it closely follows that hit pic’s playbook. It shows us the troubled aspects of the singer followed in quick succession by an iconic moment in their discography.
There are obviously lots of them in Houston’s orbit. From seven #1 hits in a row to her soaring rendition of the National Anthem at the Super Bowl to the cinematic and soundtrack phenomenon that was The Bodyguard, what’s disappointing is how glossed over and rushed they feel. For a feature with a two and half hour runtime (and you feel it), McCarten’s script never focuses on anything with more than a surface level “Behind the Music” energy.
Some of the same criticisms were deservedly pointed at Bohemian Rhapsody. I’d rank Rhapsody higher because its musical interludes like Wembley packed more of a stylistically directed punch. The behind the camera work from Kasi Lemmons never reaches that level.
As for the performances, Ackie doesn’t much resemble Whitney. Yet by the conclusion, she manages to embody her spirit in the performance pieces passably. Tucci is given a couple scenes to flesh out Davis’s character into a sympathetic figure (it probably doesn’t hurt that the actual Davis is a coproducer). Same goes for Tunie’s Cissy. Other roles are of the one-note variety like John’s scheming manager who forgets to be a father and Bobby’s constant companion who fails to be a good husband. Just as the family tries to ignore Robyn’s presence, the screenplay eventually does too.
The music itself occasionally saves the mediocrity of where this broken biopic goes. Sadly that’s not enough to save it. In other words, it’s often doesn’t feel right and it’s just OK.
** (out of four)