Give the Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody some credit: it isn’t every film that boasts a nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime without saying much at all. It’s not wholly unexpected from a film with so little faith in its own (prospective) audience they threw Houston’s name into the title last minute.
Then again, who needs depth when you have Naomi Ackie as your lead? It must be nerve-wracking to play the most awarded, commercially successful female artist of all time, and who sang with such breathtaking beauty she became known as ‘The Voice.' But Ackie is the embodiment of grace under pressure, convincingly giving us a portrait of the wide-eyed hopeful, the diva Houston was destined to become, and the woman who slowly disintegrated as the pressures of stardom and her personal life demanded more than she was able to give.
If I Wanna Dance doesn’t give Houston much of an interiority beyond her career highlights, it at least doesn’t do to her what Bohemian Rhapsody did to Freddie Mercury. If it’s baffling as to why anyone involved with said movie was allowed near the on-screen life of another artist, screenwriter Anthony McCarten has at least learned a few things. In a classic case of bare minimums, there are even funny moments that are intended to be funny, and wonder of wonders, they actually are.
Take the man who became the main reason that Houston’s talent was once outshined by her personal troubles. Perhaps there’s still some lingering resentment, since Ashton Sanders is somewhat miscast as troubled singer Bobby Brown. Part of it is strictly superficial, since his youthful face and lanky frame remains more suited to his breakout role as the teenage Chiron in Moonlight. He’s far more memorable when the movie is leaning into the more comedic aspects of Brown and Houston’s turbulent marriage. Maybe Brown expecting his fiance of two minutes to be relieved when his version of getting things off his chest includes revealing his ex is pregnant shouldn’t have been played for laughs, but credit to Sanders and Ackie for pulling it off.
Sanders may also be believably menacing as their marriage deteriorates, convincingly playing off Ackie as their toxicity builds, but I Wanna Dance can’t bear to reveal the depths this brilliantly talented woman eventually sank to, leaving much of the drug use and drama offscreen, and more conveniently ignoring how many in the media were to ready to gleefully reduce her to a punchline.
It’s easy to see why the movie would rather focus on achievements. Stars of this magnitude are infused with a sense of destiny as their stories are told, but Whitney Houston was clearly always going to be on the stage, with her mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) carefully honing her daughter’s talents and being a successful singer in her own right who was on a first name basis with Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), and also counted Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick as family. When Davis shows up to Whitney’s performance and starts tapping to the rhythm, history isn’t being made, it’s waiting to unfold. And since the real-life Davis is a producer, he’s all warmth as the only positive male authority figure in Houston’s life.
Daddy issues aren’t just big in I Wanna Dance, they’re the chink in the confident singer’s armor, the flaw in her resolution to be the princess the industry wants her to be. Time and again she obeys her imperious father’s (Clarke Peters) demands, then predictably gives her loyalty to a husband who doesn’t deserve it. Thomas Hardy came close to grasping how such confident women fall so far when he wrote, “When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away…Weakness is doubly weak by being new.”
Pauline Kael may have nailed it when she elaborated, “If the women who are ‘too much’ for men fall for sharpies and rough guys who brutalize them, it probably has a lot to do with the scarcity of the other men, and something to do, too, with the women’s insecurity about being too much. The stronger a woman’s need to use her energy, her brains, and her talent, the more confusedly she may feel that she has a beating coming.”
This Houston is likewise slowly eaten away by those who determined to take what she has to give, revering the gendered expectations of her church background which caused her to turn away from those who had her best interests at heart, most painfully her lover turned platonic best friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who the movie also banishes off-screen when Whitney chooses her husband.
Or at least that’s the sense we get from the glorified highlight reel I Wanna Dance offers, which skips Houston’s activism and philanthropy and only depicts the racism she faced from the Black community. It would be more galling if director Kasi Lemmons weren’t so skilled in the art of cinematic seduction. She may not have a good script to work with, but she has star Ackie to bring Houston’s career highlights to such breathtaking heights of cinema that audience members broke out the lighters and swaying hands during the screening I attended. And she takes care to pan the camera to the audience and take in the awed look on her female fans as they adoringly gazed upon their idol, who turned female pain into art.
I Wanna Dance is not worthy of the artist it claims to honor, but such a lifelike rendering of her will be enough for audiences to find real joy in what the movie does get right. If it’s not enough for her to be more than The Voice, there’s at least reverence for what she left behind, the music only she could give.
Rating: 5/10 SPECS
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival.
She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One's Own, and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Spool, The Mary Sue, Inverse, and The Chicago Reader. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.