Whitney Houston was the greatest voice of her generation, though you might not know it from the biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the very title of which feels the need to explain a subject who needs no introduction. Her vocal prowess is never in question, but the film treads so lightly over her life and career that her impact on the music industry and on the world is never deeply felt. It’s easy to see where the bulk of the blame for the scattershot dissection of Houston should be pointed; the film is directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) but written by Antony McCarten (whose screenplay for the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” also did its subject few favors).
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is loosely framed by Houston’s performance of a now-iconic medley of songs (“I Loves You, Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and “I Have Nothing”) at the 1994 American Music Awards. As Houston (played by Naomi Ackie) prepares to sing, she tells the crowd that the songs are about love before the film flashes back to 1983 and tells the rest of her story chronologically, but the narrative never really follows through on the suggestion that it is going to focus on loves lost and found in Houston’s life to justify this confusing structure. Sure, some of that is present. The film’s best asset is that it concentrates some on Houston’s close friendship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who she met before she ascended to stardom and who later worked for Houston; years after Houston’s passing in 2012, Crawford confirmed rumors that their early relationship was romantic. But Robyn becomes less and less active in the story the longer it goes on, zipping from topic to topic and life event to life event without dwelling long enough on any of them to draw out any sort of common threads or themes.
There’s a version of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” that might have veered off in a darker direction after producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci in full supportive daddy mode) discovers Houston in a club, her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), a professional singer herself, faking a cough so her daughter can take her place when she spots Davis in the audience. A version that tackled wholeheartedly the corrupting power of fame, how a peppy young woman from New Jersey finds her prior confidence in who she is and what she wants thrown out of whack by the public’s questions about her cross-over appeal, the fact that she’s seen as both not Black enough and not white enough, her father’s (Clarke Peters) strict management of her career, her money, and her public persona, and the abuse of her husband, bad boy singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), who butts heads with the one person who seems to truly have Houston’s best interests at heart, Robyn, gradually driving her out of the picture. But Davis (who serves as a producer on the movie) is portrayed as a reliable friend and confidant, not a money-grabbing producer. And all of the other subjects, all of which are fraught with enough drama to fill out an entire feature film on their own, are treated more like filler designed to bring the audience from one show-stopping music number to the next. It’s the Cliff-notes version of Houston’s very full life, one brimming with both joy and tragedy, crammed into a little over two hours, and it isn’t even an especially well-written one at that (the clunky dialogue includes a scene where Davis, trying to encourage Houston to go to rehab, tells her not to underestimate “the lethal power of drugs”).
To her credit, Ackie acts her heart out. But it’s hard to embody an icon. As Whitney Houston the person, Ackie is at her best, whether she’s exuding happiness when Houston is with her daughter, Bobbi Kristina, or goofing off with Robyn, or exerting control over a life that is quickly slipping away from her when confronting Bobby or her father for their misdeeds. Maybe I shouldn’t have watched some of the real Whitney’s music videos minutes before seeing this movie, but when performing, Houston exhibited an unmatched power and charisma, whether dancing to a snappy pop song or belting out a ballad. Ackie lip-syncs to the real Houston’s vocals throughout the movie; on the one hand, while the recognition that no one could come close to duplicating her vocals is appropriate, it’s odd hearing them come out of someone else’s mouth, and it’s too obvious during the more powerful songs (such as “I Will Always Love You”) that that voice isn’t coming from Ackie’s gut. While it possesses some middling entertainment value based on the nature of its subject alone, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is ultimately just another entry in the long line of sanitized and sloppy music biopics.
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 144 minutes. Rated PG-13.