Currently playing in UK and US cinemas, and starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Nafessa Williams, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, and Clarke Peters, is the biographical musical drama, I Wanna Dance With Somebody. The movie – directed by Kasi Lemmons – is based on the life of US pop singer and actress, Whitney Houston, and tells the story of her spectacular career.
Running from her initial meeting with record producer and friend Clive Davis, through to her relationship with girlfriend Robyn Crawford, her marriage to Bobby Brown, and her show-stopping turn in 1992’s The Bodyguard, I Wanna Dance With Somebody provides a checklist of all Houston’s major milestones. The film ticks off many of the singer’s big musical numbers, shines a light on her battle with drugs, and looks at the latter parts of her life in the run up to her death in 2012.
Along the way, the movie offers a potted account of who Houston was, what difficulties she faced (at home and in the spotlight), and what factors led to her sad passing at the age of 48. The film covers a lot of material, and it crams plenty into its almost two-and-a-half-hour runtime, to ensure audiences are given a Whitney history.
But does the film work as well as it should? With a career as big as Whitney Houston’s, does this biopic live up to the star status of the singer herself?
Well, I would say, no. It’s not bad, and is fine in places, but it doesn’t quite hit the heights expected of a film about Houston.
As with pretty much every biopic, I Wanna Dance With Somebody suffers from the problem of having a lot of material to cover and only so much room to explore it. And as with many of its peers, this means picking and choosing what to include, and what to gloss over, to ensure there is an even balance.
However, while I Wanna Dance With Somebody does work hard to include various touchpoints (key songs, etc), there is a sense that it’s all a bit rushed, and largely surface level stuff. There isn’t a great deal of depth in parts of the story, with Houston’s relationship with her family and her relationship with ex-husband Bobby Brown in particular, feeling underdeveloped.
The script by Anthony McCarten never feels quite strong enough. I understand that a film such as this can only discuss so much, but a bit of tweaking or another pass would have helped.
But the issues of I Wanna Dance With Somebody don’t lie in the writing alone – the direction is also missing something. Kasi Lemmons provides adequate direction, and delivers a perfectly serviceable movie, but this is a film about Whitney Houston, one of the greatest singers of all-time (if not THE greatest singer of all-time); her biopic needs a bit more flair, glitz, glamour, and razzmatazz.
Just look at Baz Luhrmann’s recent Elvis Presley movie which had flair coming out of every frame – that’s how to treat an American icon. Houston is no-less of an American icon, yet I Wanna Dance With Somebody feels a lesser film in comparison.
Where I Wanna Dance With Somebody does shine bright is in the casting, specifically when it comes to Naomi Ackie as Houston. Ackie puts in a great performance, which embodies the beauty, talent, and star power of the late singer.
I’m not entirely convinced Ackie is up there with Austin Butler as Elvis, or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It, but she’s bloody good nonetheless. And the same can be said for the ever-dependable Stanley Tucci as Houston’s manager, Clive Davis.
The pairing of Ackie and Tucci works very well, and is another one of the movie’s strengths. In fact, while I believe that a number of scenes feel underwritten, all of the Houston/Davis sequences are excellent, and are true bright spots in the picture.
Of course, if you’re a Whitney super-fan, who already knows a great deal of her story, then you will probably be more concerned about hearing your favourite tunes in the movie. Well, it’s good news, as a number of hits are featured, including the always impressive ‘I Will Always Love You’, the title track ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)’, and a magnificent medley of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’, ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’, and ‘I Have Nothing’.
The film also includes a few snippets of archive footage to give the likes of Kevin Costner and Oprah Winfrey brief cameos, and the story doesn’t dwell too much on Houston’s death. It’s a subject that most audiences will be aware of, so there’s no unnecessary sensationalism at the end.
If you adore Whitney Houston, and you know her life inside and out, then I’m sure you will come away from the film having had a good time. To reiterate what I said earlier, I Wanna Dance With Somebody isn’t bad, it’s fine in places, and ultimately, this is a serviceable movie.
But for those who know little about Houston, and who want to understand why she was as popular as she was, I don’t believe this film digs deep enough. My advice is that after you finish I Wanna Dance With Somebody, you check out Kevin Macdonald’s excellent 2018 docu-film, Whitney, to get a much more informative experience.
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