‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’
CAPTURES THE MUSIC OF WHITNEY HOUSTON BUT ZIPS THROUGH MOST OF THE ICON’S LIFE
Most of the headlines near the end of Whitney Houston’s life were negative — the volatile relationship with husband Bobby Brown, unsuccessful vocal performances, the drug use, the 2002 “crack is whack” interview with Diane Sawyer. The singer died tragically in 2012 at the age of 48, drowning in a bathtub in a Beverly Hills hotel with cocaine in her system. Yet nothing can take away from the legacy of the performer, one of the bestselling artists of all time and the voice of her generation. The new film, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” celebrates the life of Houston 10 years after her passing. It’s watchable enough, but it’s largely a CliffsNotes version.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the biopic stars Naomi Ackie as Houston, who is discovered by record exec Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) and led on her way to superstardom. As her career accelerates with one hit single after another, Houston is watched over by her parents John (Clarke Peters) and Cissy (Tamara Tunie), who want to control her and mold her into an All-American sweetheart, an image Whitney is not comfortable with.
Much of the mystery surrounding the film centered on how it would depict Robyn Crawford, who has claimed she had a romantic relationship with the performer. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t shy away from their attraction — the two women meet early on and are pretty much inseparable. Atlanta-based actress Nafessa
Williams plays Crawford, bringing energy and warmth to the role. The relationship between the women is known in Houston’s circles, and Houston even makes Crawford her creative director, butting heads with her father. Eventually, however, it’s determined that she needs to be seen with more men around her as she becomes a public figure.
After meeting Bobby Brown at the 1989 Soul Train Music Awards, Houston marries the recording artist three years later. Their years together (largely in Atlanta) were tumultuous, and Houston ultimately left Brown. Some of the most intriguing moments come as Houston finds herself in the middle, torn between her husband and her allegiance and love for Crawford. When Brown comes into the picture, the relationship between the women is never the same.
Some of the film works, especially the moments between Tucci and Ackie as Davis and Houston working together, planning her next moves. And no one can deny how potent and catchy Houston’s music was and still is. Several numbers are engagingly staged.
What does the film in is Anthony McCarten’s mechanical screenplay. The film zips through Houston’s life, year after year, often without much meat or clarity.
The 1992 blockbuster film, “The Bodyguard,” for example, gets roughly five or so minutes in the film. It does produce a humorous sequence where Davis hands Houston the script for the film and she puts it down, not engaged. When he tells her Kevin Costner will play the titular character, Houston snatches it back up and is suddenly interested in pursuing it.
Throughout the course of the movie, though, we never see how Houston and Brown became a couple, and how she became addicted to drugs is never adequately addressed either. The leap to addiction feels clumsy and forced. Admittedly, it’s a welcome relief to see the relationship between Crawford and Houston, but it also could have been fleshed out more.
The cast is top notch. Williams, Peters and Tunie have fine moments and Tucci can play this kind of role in his sleep. Late in the film Whitney is a little surprised when Davis begins a relationship with another man (Davis, who executive produced the project, came out as bisexual in 2013).
The beauty of Ackie’s performance is that, although she doesn’t look much like Houston and lip syncs much of the music, she nonetheless creates a real character. Her Houston is bold and ambitious, yet stymied by those handling her career, especially her father.
Sony Pictures has sandwiched the film’s release between “The Woman King” and the upcoming “A Man Called Otto,” both of which the studio is pushing for Oscar® nominations. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” seems lost in the shuffle. It’s not a great film, but Ackie herself is a revelation. A Best Actress Oscar nomination would have been a stretch, but she could have been nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Film, Musical or Comedy with more of a push.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” might please audiences looking to be reminded of Whitney Houston’s profound career and influence, but anyone looking for a bit more insight or a deep dive may be leaving disappointed.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is now in area theaters.