‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ Skips Too Quickly Through the Tracks
When we already know its awful ending, why do we want to watch a movie like I Wanna Dance with Somebody? (Which, technically, has had a last-minute retitling to Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.) We’re all too aware of what’s going to befall Houston in a hotel room in 2012, so everything preceding it feels like a march toward ruin. That weight drags down director Kasi Lemmons’s film; inevitably, perhaps.
Things start well, as they so often do in path-to-stardom stories. We meet a young Houston, a gifted church singer whose family is already ensconced in the music industry. Houston is haloed in an aura of teeming potential; she’s bright and hungry and, in those early days, determinedly herself. Houston, played with equal parts flounce and flint by British actor Naomi Ackie, is not the pious daughter her parents, and later much of America, want her to be. She strikes up a relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), seemingly secure in her sexuality and not terribly guarded about it.
Here Anthony McCarten’s script promises to be something different than the usual approved-by-the-estate biopic. There will be some transgression of the lore, a more personal and probing look into an icon’s life, unlike so many films that simply wander through the greatest hits. That energy is maintained as Houston is discovered by Clive Davis (played with avuncular purr by Stanley Tucci) and her career begins its skyrocket ascent. Houston is assertive and self-possessed, clever about what songs appeal to her and defiant about Robyn’s close presence in her life. There is a real character study happening here, one that Ackie approaches with intriguing nuance.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody benefits, of course, from Houston’s seismic songs, joyful pop blares and full-throated ballads that easily energize any scene in which they’re featured. We are mostly hearing Houston herself sing, but Ackie lip-syncs expressively. (So much so that I was sure it was her singing for much of the film; post-screening reading suggests otherwise though.) Not everyone was enamored of Houston’s music back then; there was criticism within the Black community that Houston was too nakedly being marketed to white audiences, stripping her songs of any detectable notes of gospel or R&B, a sonic whitewashing. Here is another complicated facet of Houston’s legacy, presented with a refreshing frankness.
But the film introduces that issue only to quickly drop it. As it does with Houston’s sexuality. I Wanna Dance with Somebody ultimately devolves into a boilerplate biopic, a series of increasingly unfortunate events presented with little narrative shape or texture. The film whizzes through the years, skating blithely over The Bodyguard, never once mentioning Waiting to Exhale, and barely addressing Houston’s drug use until it’s become the problem that will destroy her.
I suppose the offhanded way that Lemmons incorporates Houston’s cocaine dependency into the story might be the point; this was an insidious thing that went from casual to serious largely in secret. Still, the film lacks some kind of origin story for this aspect of Houston’s life: when precisely did it begin, and how? That may not be what I Wanna Dance with Somebody wishes to focus on, but in that polite avoidance, the film thins itself into flimsiness. The searching quality of the film’s beginnings loses out to the later bland reenactments.
Similarly, the film presents only the rudimentary basics of Houston’s volatile marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). By the time he enters the picture, things are moving at too quick a clip for his presence to gain any traction. He’s there only because one can’t make a Whitney Houston biopic without him. The film loses sight of Robyn, too. Maybe that is reflective of Houston’s mounting isolation, but the film has previously established an interesting and perhaps defining relationship that it then casts aside for expediency’s sake. There is also the matter of Houston’s parents, played forcefully by Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters, who loom large when they’re given a bit of screen time, but are ultimately jettisoned along with everything else.
At least there is the music to return to, again and again. There is the famous Super Bowl national anthem performance, the soaring belt of “I Will Always Love You,” the righteous groove of “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay.” I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a mighty testament to Houston’s catalog, the cathedral highs and sultry lows of her singular voice. Those songs, at least, are eternal. If a movie that simply presses play on the mix tape is what it takes to remind us of Houston’s special power, then that’s reason enough for the film to exist. But the story behind the songs probably deserves more, and better.