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About 25 minutes into "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody," an inarticulate, slapdash musical biopic about the famed songstress, the film reaches its high point: Arista Records head Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) enters the nightclub where Houston (Naomi Ackie) and her gospel legend mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) are performing. When the latter sees the A&R man taking his seat, she fakes losing her voice, clearing the way for her daughter to sing "The Greatest Love of All." Her vocals climb, soaring to the familiar majestic heights that catapulted her toward stardom. We watch Davis watch her. In one close-up, you can almost imagine dollar signs dancing around his head. The scene is so stirring one woman in my screening pulled out a lighter and waved her flame to the rhythm of Houston's unforgettable vibrato.
During that brief scene, you can imagine "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" gravitating toward a clear-eyed narrative about the annihilation of a voice, talent, and person by flattening her identity for the commodification of an image. But in working with an unfocused script by Anthony McCarten ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), director Kasi Lemmons flounders when rendering the woman beyond the tabloid cliff notes of her life.
"I Wanna Dance with Somebody" takes great pains to craft an intuitive throughline for Houston's life, as we briefly open in 1994 at the American Music Awards before flashing back to 1983 in New Jersey. But how Lemmons ultimately maneuvers back to the AMAs makes little emotional or logical sense.
Still, for a short time, we're ready to absorb the saga with Lemmons. We see Houston (her friends call her "Nippy") meeting and forming a lesbian relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams)—Lemmons should be complimented for not avoiding this portion of the singer's personal life. Houston eventually signs with the steadfast Clive Davis, takes advice from her parents Cissy and the selfish patriarch John Houston (Clarke Peters) to tone down her butch image in lieu of becoming America's princess. Soon enough, she begins racking up hits. Unfortunately, these scenes rush by, to the point that their brusque speed fools you into believing that Lemmons is merely trying to get to the real story she wants to tell.
But that story never arrives. Instead, the film hops and skips through the highlights of Houston's career: making the music video for "How Will I Know," choosing the demo tape of the titular "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" from Davis' pile of cassettes, and performing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Super Bowl XXV. All the while, hampered by her drug addiction, her relationship with Crawford frays. Instead, she chooses her image, career, and desire for Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders, who gives the R&B singer a bundle of tics and a vocal cadence alarmingly close to DMX).
The editing choices by Daysha Broadway ("Insecure") are driven by a bare necessity to advance the narrative but not any emotional momentum. Some of her dissonant decisions are unintentionally comedic in an "It's so bad, it's entertaining" way, like when Houston’s father threatens his daughter with litigation from his hospital bed—the next cut is to his funeral.
And the way that Lemmons stages certain scenes doesn't cohere with how humans communicate. One sequence, occurring in the singer’s dressing room, sees Crawford, Houston, and Brown discussing business. Rather than cutting between each person, Lemmons stages the trio in a three-shot in which they don’t face each other but stare awkwardly into a dressing room mirror, giving the appearance of them stiffly speaking to their reflections.
We never get a sense from this film of Houston as a person; Ackie might as well be a hologram performing these songs. Her marriage to Brown lacks a visible arc; the role that Crawford played in Houston's life after Brown entered is never discussed (though Williams pulls some laughs through her energetic verve); and Cissy and John serve little purpose (Peters makes some very odd, grating choices). But you can't blame any of the actors for coming up short. The script, the editing, the cinematography, and every component of what makes a movie—aside from the impeccable costuming—undermines the performances here.
The jukebox element of a musical biopic will always prove a hit. The film, however, must be as transcendent as the songbook. None of the performances, unfortunately, are filmed well by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd ("The Hurt Locker"). The lighting proves inconsistent, and his shaky cam style plays incongruously with the musical staging. Only the tunes themselves make these scenes remotely watchable. It's a sad development, and for a director of Lemmons' caliber, it is particularly shocking.
It's never clear what destination this film is heading toward, or what climax we're climbing up to. The score by Chanda Dancy turns unbearably soapy and melodramatic as we fast-forward to Houston's 2009 performance on Oprah, and then her life in Los Angeles in 2012. These events are boxes on a checklist. They would bloat the movie if a scene ever played long enough to fulfill the definition of a scene.
What did Black superstardom mean during the 1980s? What does the erasure of Houston's queer relationship and its modern acceptance say about the strides we've made in Black queer representation? Who was Houston as a mother, as a businesswoman, and as the leader of her career? The script asks these questions but never takes any considerable interest in their answers.
Much like with "Respect," last year's Aretha Franklin biopic, the events here all feel meaningless when trying to hit every point of Houston's life. We do arrive back at the AMAs performance, a high-wire vocal act that thrills yet doesn't provide an exclamation point to the biopic. The credits then feature clips of the real-life Houston performing, once again undermining Ackie's turn as the singer. The indelible, unmatched voice of Houston may live on, but "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" lacks the ingredients of what made Houston a force that permanently altered every person who truly heard her.
Now playing in theaters.
Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston
Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown
Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis
Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford
Lance A. Williams as Gerry Griffith
Tamara Tunie as Cissy Houston
Clarke Peters as John Houston
Daniel Washington as Gary Houston
JaQuan Malik Jones as Michael Houston
Kris Sidberry as Pat Houston
Tanner Beard as Günther
Bailee Lopes as Bobbi-Kristina (8-10 Yrs old)
Jennifer Ellis as Lisa Hintelmann