‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ Merely Dramatizes a Showreel of the Singer’s Highlights

The story of Whitney Houston has all the makings of stirring drama. She was a natural talent with a soaring voice who achieved massive fame and fortune before marrying the wrong man, and eventually descending into a tragic final act. Fans want to know more about Whitney Houston but a biopic like “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” prefers to merely dramatize the highlight reel of her life. The title itself is a curiosity. Why put her name before one of her most renowned songs? Most of the audience walking in will already know who the movie is about. That quam aside, at least the film delivers an admirable performance by Naomi Ackie, who channels an icon while hinting at the richer journey this could have been.

Whitney (Ackie) is first introduced as a young woman learning the craft of singing via the church choir directed by her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie). Like multiple Black American artists who can trace their roots to the church, it’s more than an adequate training ground, and Cissy is no easy teacher. Mother also runs a band where Whitney sings backup. Cissy is so determined to drive Whitney to success that she willingly steps aside and has her daughter step in to sing on a show, where in the audience is Arista Records head Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). Davis signs Whitney and quickly shapes her into a pop singer. Her range can also cover gospel, R&B and soul effortlessly, but she needs hits. Once success does strike, there is more pressure to maintain a particular persona, overlooked by her domineering father, John Houston (Clarke Peters). This includes making sure she’s seen dating men to dispel any rumors swirling around her gay best friend, Robyn (Nafessa Williams). But once Whitney meets and falls for R&B and new jack swing singer, Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), Whitney’s life becomes unstable.

There are no shockers in this biopic for longtime Whitney Houston fans, or for anyone who has watched Kevin Macdonald’s superb 2018 documentary, “Whitney.” In fact, the Macdonald documentary contains much richer insights and honest commentary on the singer’s life. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is all hagiography, covering the public greatness of Whitney without ever trying to form a genuine, cinematic story around her. It’s missing the honest edge of biopics like “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” Director Kasi Lemmons is working from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also penned the equally brisk “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That movie thrived on its sense of fun and Rami Malek’s dynamic performance as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. But it also played the same game of purposefully avoiding the more challenging side of the story. Deeper layers are only hinted at. Robyn is clearly in love with Whitney and hints that there was possibly a deeper, sexual relationship at some point, yet this tense suggestion never goes beyond one scene. It’s the same fashion with which McCarten treated Mercury’s love life, as something quick with no insights to give on the personality.

Never does the movie touch on Whitney’s childhood, how the ‘60s influenced her world, and her brothers are virtually absent. She sees Bobby Brown perform at an awards show and simply likes him, with no logic even to the instant attraction. In “Whitney” there are valuable insights into how Brown’s rowdy stage demeanor was similar to the kind of boisterous attitudes Houston witnessed from her brothers. But Lemmons has no time for psychological probing. Once Bobby starts doing coke with Whitney, she mentions the drugs were always there, which again, we never see any build up for. The fights soon begin because Whitney has to tour, Bobby is out partying and philandering, even proposing to Whitney on the same night he announces his ex is pregnant. All the while Clive Davis, a fascinating figure in his own right who guided careers for many legends, hovers around like a wise grandfather dispensing advice (such as not to smoke) and offering Whitney new songs. 

The music is of course great, even if we get so little of it. The movie’s title song is barely a background jingle as well as another signature tune, “I Will Always Love You,” from Houston’s acting debut, 1992’s “The Bodyguard.” It’s yet another chapter captured in one or two scenes where Whitney sits around set, in quiet despair. By the next scene she’s already made two other movies, “Waiting to Exhale” and “The Preacher’s Wife.” More ludicrous is how Lemmons films Houston’s famous rendition of the “Star-Bangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl. CGI fighter jets stream into a close-up as if they were an outtake from “Independence Day,” before we swoop into the football field for the performance. The scene also closes with more close-ups of the war planes, as if Lemmons were auditioning for a low-budget Michael Bay production. It’s senseless overkill when the movie should be focusing on a true, dramatic rendition of a life. What demons drove Houston? What was her creative process? John Houston is caught skimming money from his daughter’s career, but their relationship is never fully explored. He’s a convenient semi-villain who appears when necessary.

Naomi Ackie deserves much credit for bringing heart and effort to her performance, evoking despite the sparse script a woman who is sensitive but driven. Her Houston is a good person consumed by the demands of sustaining good craft within the hurricane of fame and money. She’s also great at lip syncing Houston in concert scenes that work because she’s convincing. It’s not the same case of possession as Malek in “Bohemian Rhapsody” or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” but she skillfully pulls off difficult moments, such as an elongated ending featuring a stirring performance at the 1994 American Music Awards. Ironically, it’s not the kind of ending the movie requires, but Ackie is great in it. The final moments of the singer’s life, reported to have been quite sad, lost in a druggy existence, are treated as rushed and airless as the rest of the movie. After a whopping 2 hours and 26 minutes, we still feel like we have not learned anything new about Whitney Houston or at least seen her in a new light through the lens of drama. Like a greatest hits album, it’s a string of moments for the fans, and even they might feel tired of the same old songs.

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” releases Dec. 23 in theaters nationwide.