Directed by Kasi Lemmons, written by Anthony McCarten, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is the new biopic on the singer’s life. Her history is full of dense material and naturally some things have to be left out for the sake of time, but 2.5 hours isn’t enough to do the story justice. The movie stars Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Nafessa Williams, and Ashton Sanders
The film starts with Whitney (Naomi Ackie) singing in the church choir run by her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), who also has a small band she performs with where Whitney sings back up. While chilling in the park listening to music the young singer meets Robyn (Nafessa Williams), a young girl from her neighborhood who she befriends. A friend of the family brings Arista Records CEO Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) to a show where Cissy is supposed to lead, but she pushes her daughter to sing The Greatest Love of All instead. That performance launched her career as she was soon signed to Arista Records as a recording artist.
Under the tutelage of Clive Davis, the wide-eyed young woman doesn’t know much about the industry, but wants to sing epic ballards, and starts her career singing pop songs. However, her parents are looking to make changes to her personality and image. Her father John Houston (Clarke Peters) is particularly controlling as her manager, and even suggests she be seen with more men to avoid suspicion that she and Robyn are a couple. All the people from Whitney’s past are now along for the ride as she meets Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders), lands several number one hits, and becomes addicted to drugs.
The film chronicles her career from the 1980’s, through the 1990s, and up to her death. The plot bounces from scene to scene with no follow through, just exposition. For example, Houston wants to get into films, next scene she gets the script for The Bodyguard, and the scene after that she’s already starred in Waiting To Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife?! Instead of seeing action, characters explain the decisions made by the previous scene as to why the film has jumped three four years into the future.
There is also a problem with scene structure by cramming details of the past, present and future into the same scene without attaching meaning to any of it. This makes I Wanna Dance With Somebody feel like a series of vignettes about Houston’s life instead of a complete narrative. There’s no theme, no message, and nothing to keep the audience engaged during the viewing experience. The film doesn’t see any real cohesion until an 1:40 mins into the movie when the cracks start forming in Whitney’s persona, and finally showing the impact of the pressure fame has on her.
Certain elements in McCarten script aren’t as convincing as the film wants them to be. Clive Davis is this great mentor who was always there for Whitney, who has never been mean or raised his voice. Learning that Davis is executive producer on I Wanna Dance With Somebody, it makes perfect sense the character would be portrayed as anything less than saccharine. The story seemed to be interested in exploring the dynamic between Robyn and Whitney, but that isn’t depicted as anything other than a plot device, and Bobby Brown is the movie’s sole antagonist. This doesn’t mean the acting isn’t decent, but everyone that isn’t Whitney Houston and Clive Davis has little to contribute.
Naomi Ackie has Houston is the most believable element. She’s able to smoothly transition through the various eras of Whitney’s life and captures her voice, mannerisms, movements, accurately, although she may not look exactly like her. Stanley Tucci is one of Hollywood’s most talented actors, and yet his role as Davis is fine, just fine because his monotone voice, and static personality keep him restricted. The performance I truly don’t understand is Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown. It’s a caricature, and comes off as parody, like he was forced to watch the Bobby and Whitney reality show and told him to act just like that. There are no levels to the character.
And my goodness, why didn’t the hair department give Nafessa Williams a better wig. Old pictures of the real Robyn show her as someone with a variety of hair and clothing styles, why didn’t the viewer get to see those changes? Another role bogged down by a prohibitive plot.
Whitney Houston’s family, friends, and fans put her on a pedestal topped with expectations that were impossible for any human to sustain. Everyone in her life wanted her to be someone other than who she was. This drove her to engage in activities that gave her respite away from the noise. Imagine being in her shoes having with deal with the isolation, loneliness, and depression, while performing for thousands night after night. All the things Whitney wasn’t allowed to express in her quest for normalcy, manifested into spiral that people witnessed, but addressed too late.
Whitney Houston’s life has been adapted to screen several times, and after seeing I Wanna Dance With Somebody, it’s clear her story isn’t adaptable for the standard feature film structure. Not even 2.5 hour film written by Hollywood’s most sought after biopic writer could give cohesive and coherent representation to her legacy. Houston’s life story deserves more time and development to peel back the layers of her experiences.