Sometimes with a music biopic, it’s the music that carries the day when the story seems painfully familiar. So why do most music biopics feel like they follow the same blueprint (as was expertly mimicked in Walk Hard)? Primarily because someone on high believes that the story of a musician isn’t worth telling unless there is substance abuse, inner turmoil, family drama, and, in most cases, a triumphant comeback. And of course, the music has to be transcendent. I think it’s safe to say, Whitney Houston’s was; if you doubt that, a) why are you reading this?, and b) peruse her greatest hits—especially her first two albums—and try telling me there’s no reason to celebrate her being one of the most successful recording artists in history.
The biggest difference between I Wanna Dance With Somebody and every other music biopic is that Houston didn’t get her comeback chapter, despite being poised to get there. She died of an accidental drowning with drugs in her system ten years ago at the age of 48, and I think the music world has yet to fill the hole left by her absence. Perhaps because of that, the film feels like it’s missing something as well. But that’s how life played out, and it’s not the film’s fault that Houston’s life ended, leaving her story somewhat incomplete.
When we meet Houston (played by the powerhouse, British-born Naomi Ackie, Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker), she’s already grown up and singing in the church choir in Orange, New Jersey. Her mother was the famous one, singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), and was coaching her daughter while also hiring her to sing backup for her when she played clubs around town. But one night when Arista music executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) is in the house scouting talent, Cissy lets Whitney sing a song (“The Greatest Love of All”) by herself to open up the show, and Davis sees her potential immediately. The first of many wise moves made by director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me) is to let us hear the entire song that Davis listened to, giving the audience a chance to experience her full-throttle voice right along with him. This is not the last time Lemmons allows us to hear all or most of one of Houston’s many beloved songs, and the result? The crowd I saw this film with was dancing in their seats, swinging their hands, and one person even held up a lighter (I wish I were joking).
After signing her, Davis combines his ear for music with Houston’s ability to pick the perfect songs for her vocal abilities, and the two create near-perfect albums and a string of Number One songs that hit that sweet spot appealing to Black and white audiences, which was all great until it wasn’t. Since Davis is an executive producer on the film, it should come as no surprise that the partnership between him and Houston is one of the healthiest portrayed in the movie. Late in the story, Davis pleasantly confronts Whitney about her drug problem, pleading with her to go into rehab. When they first meet, he makes it clear that he doesn’t interfere in his artists’ personal lives, so for him to cross over that line tells us a few things about their connection. Yes, he cared for her very much, but she was also his top earner, so the motivations aren’t entirely selfless.
My biggest concern going into I Wanna Dance With Somebody was that it wouldn’t be honest about some of the elements of Houston’s life, including her long-time relationship with girlfriend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), whom people close to Whitney knew about and mostly tolerated. They were a great couple, by all accounts, but Houston’s soaring fame made the relationship a tabloid target and threatened to derail everything, which Whitney did not want. They broke up, but Robyn became her friend’s creative director and an integral part of her success moving forward and one of the only people Houston could trust. But with all of that in mind, the movie depicts Houston as someone who valued image over friendship, and eventually prioritizes a relationship and eventual marriage to singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) over her close friends and sometime lover. For its many flaws, I Wanna Dance With Somebody seems committed to a certain level of honesty.
Speaking of which, one of the more interesting elements of the film that I wish had been explored more in the screenplay by Academy Award-nominee Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour, The Two Popes) is the relationship between Houston and her manager-father John Houston (Clarke Peters), who ultimately ripped her off for millions, forcing her to record and tour when she wanted to rest and recover from years of drug abuse, which the film depicts quite honestly. Their confrontations always feel like they are going to get physical, and the scenes between them have that air of danger. And the tumultuous marriage of Houston and Brown wasn’t much better. With no real career of his own to speak of, Brown dove headfirst into making being Houston’s husband a full-time job, while never pretending to stay faithful and always threatening to blow up her life if she ever tried to leave him.
Yes, we’ve seen this all before, but combining this familiar life story with the level of success Houston experienced, especially for a Black woman who was not always embraced by the Black community, there was nothing quite like it. And did I mention the songs? There were so many songs, and successful movies (the segment about her working on The Bodyguard is kind of amusing, but her selection of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” as the representative song for the soundtrack is no joke).
As much as the film tends to skim the surface of some important periods in Houston’s life, the level of detail in the re-creation of specific music videos, live performances, and other key moments is astonishing. The production design, costuming, and dance elements for the “How Will I Know?” video are so perfectly realized that my head almost exploded, and it just got more impressive from there. But the backdrop is only part of Houston’s story, and the film seems to miss big portions of her life. Didn’t she and Brown have a reality show, presumably done for the cash? That’s nowhere here, and I think it would have been fascinating. Also, I kept waiting for a scene in which Whitney reacts to Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live,” which mirrored the way a lot of the public saw the troubled Houston.
Still, between the lengthy musical spotlights and Ackie’s devastating performance, I Wanna Dance With Somebody kept me curious, if not fully engaged, with this ultimately tragic personal story. It’s easy to get caught up in the wigs, costumes, and other ephemera of the film (I know I did at times), and I realize you can’t cover every minute of a person’s life, but something about the film feels slight and without depth. Ultimately, I still think the work has enough going for it to make it worth seeing, especially if you ever counted yourself a Houston fan.
The film is now playing in theaters.
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