The poster for this biopic proudly announces that “Naomie Ackie is Whitney Houston“. That’s quite a claim, but Ackie’s performance as the late superstar is genuinely transformative. She doesn’t just nail Houston’s distinctive speaking voice and stage mannerisms – the lip quivers, the dramatic hand gestures – but also captures her plucky spirit. Houston’s friends and family members didn’t call her “Nippy” for nothing.
British actress Ackie, best known for her BAFTA-winning turn in The End of the F***ing World, invests Houston with tremendous empathy throughout. Still, the most moving scenes come at the end when Houston is grappling with her diminished vocal ability. When everyone knows you as the “The Voice”, who do you become when it’s gone?
Ackie shows off her own vocal range in an early scene, but for the remainder of the movie we see her lip-syncing to Houston’s awesome live and recorded performances. It’s a sensible creative decision that Ackie’s co-star Stanley Tucci summed up perfectly in a recent interview: “The only person who can sing like Whitney Houston was Whitney Houston, let’s face it.”
Ultimately, reminding us of this gift is the film’s raison d’être: it certainly doesn’t shy away from recreating the singer’s famous live performances and music videos. But, a decade after her death from accidental drowning due to the effects of cocaine and heart disease, Houston the person remains an enigma – one I Wanna Dance with Somebody never fully gets a grip on. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also wrote the mega-successful Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, simply takes on too much. Director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) keeps the pace brisk but her film still clocks in at a bloated 148 minutes.
We meet Houston as a teenager having vocal technique hammered into her by mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) – a Grammy-winning singer in her own right – and follow her to that desperately sad death shortly before the 2012 Grammy Awards. That’s an enormously eventful three decades in which Houston signs a deal with legendary record exec Clive Davis (Tucci), gets marketed rather misleadingly as “America’s sweetheart”, scores more consecutive number-one singles than The Beatles (7), then faces accusations from some Black music fans that she “sold out” to build a white fanbase.
Deep breath… we also see her marry the unreliable R&B singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), give birth to their daughter Bobbi Kristina, deliver a transcendent a cappella rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super Bowl, star in The Bodyguard and turn Dolly Parton‘s ‘I Will Always Love You’ into a vocal masterclass, cut the defiant R&B classic ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’, then descend into drug abuse before mounting a pretty shaky comeback. Honestly, there’s a lot here to take in.
Thankfully, unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Lemmons’ film doesn’t try to downplay Houston’s queerness. Early on, there are poignant glimpses of her relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) and the way it’s perceived as a problem by Houston’s domineering father John (Clarke Peters). Crawford remained on board as Houston’s best friend and creative director long after their romance ended, but eventually gets pushed out by Brown, whose own influence on Houston is much less nourishing.
Sadly, I Wanna Dance with Somebody seems less interested in other aspects of Houston’s identity. When she tells Davis she is exhausted the way “all Black women are exhausted”, the film doesn’t bother delving into why. It leaves other key questions hanging in mid-air. Why wasn’t Houston more interested in writing her own songs? Why did she carry on smoking even when it started causing vocal damage? We’re shown that she never had any problem getting hold of harder drugs. And was her professional relationship with Clive Davis really as benevolent as it is portrayed here? The fact Davis is credited as one of the movie’s producers may offer a clue.
Somewhat inevitably, the film ends with a dazzling recreation of an iconic Houston live performance. The narrative device that takes us there feels contrived – Houston is reminded of the night in question by a sympathetic barman – but the emotional payoff is satisfying anyway. I Wanna Dance with Somebody isn’t as illuminating as it could be, but it still feels like a fitting tribute to a brave and complicated artist with a genuinely incredible gift.
- Director: Kasi Lemmons
- Starring: Naomie Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders
- Release date: December 21 (Part 2 on YouTube)