I Wanna Dance with Somebody review: The first authorised biopic turns Whitney Houston into a product

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ screenwriter Anthony McCarten strips a miraculous talent of her messy, beautiful humanity

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 21 December 2022 16:11 GMT
I Wanna Dance with Somebody - Whitney Houston biopic trailer

When Whitney Houston died in 2012, in a drug-related accidental drowning at age 48, the search for an explanation took on a desperate edge. Tell-all memoirs were published by her inner circle. Documentaries – 2017’s Whitney: Can I Be Me and 2018’s Whitney among them – functioned more like space probes. A Lifetime series directed by Houston’s Waiting to Exhale co-star, Angela Bassett, came across as earnest but slight. Most of these positioned Houston as an Icarus plummeting back down to Earth, with an outsized focus on her latter years of addiction, her fading vocal range, and her tabloid domination.

She’d become one of the many, cautionary tales that haunt pop culture’s margins, all at the expense of that miraculous talent that once earned her the nickname “The Voice”. So, it’s hard to fault Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the first biopic authorised by her estate, for its attempt to recentre her legacy. It’s “The Voice” – that soaring, velvet soprano – that we first hear, played over its opening titles. They’re also the last words we see on screen before the credits roll. But it’s a noble cause undercut by more cynical, capitalist impulses. The film is only one step in a vast, corporate overhaul that’s seen Houston’s estate partner with management company Primary Wave. There are now Houston-themed Funko POP! figurines, Peloton classes, and a line of MAC cosmetics.

I Wanna Dance with Somebody, then, is less about truth and artistry than it is about control – its intentions made clear by the hiring of Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who maligned Freddie Mercury’s status as a queer icon to paint the living members of Queen in a more positive light. His handling of Houston is more respectful, at least, but the formulaic cradle-to-grave structure of his script plays like a run-on sentence of biographical detail. The film cuts to her performance of the US national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl when it’s already halfway done, only to then get distracted by the hideous, CGI fighter planes flying overhead. Her friendship with Bodyguard co-star Kevin Costner, who first suggested she sing “I Will Always Love You”, is nixed almost solely to avoid finding a Costner lookalike.

It’s a real waste of the talent at work here in front of and behind the camera. Walthamstow-born Naomi Ackie, best-known for her roles in The End of the F***ing World and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, would ideally have been catapulted to fame by her role as Houston. Though her own singing voice is largely (and logically) replaced by Houston’s, she’s clearly doing the hard work of burrowing into the space between direct imitation and the evocation of something bigger, and more symbolic. She plays Houston as someone prepared to live in total service of her gift. But the film hardly lets her breathe. Director Kasi Lemmons and cinematographer Barry Ackroyd do their best to find that emotion in the camerawork, but the tenderness with which she’s framed never feels close to enough.

The film begins in 1983, in New Jersey, and her discovery by Arista Records founder Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). Davis, who is a producer on the film, remains a serene, paternal presence throughout. Houston’s romantic relationship with her long-time creative director Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) is depicted – as is the singer’s decision to end it because she feared the public’s scrutiny and, as the film implies, her family’s own homophobic beliefs. But we never heard much from Robyn beyond that point. Most troublingly, it whitewashes Houston’s allegations that Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) was abusive during their marriage. Instead, we’re simply ushered on to the next event, the next line on her Wikipedia page. I Wanna Dance with Somebody strips Houston of her messy, beautiful humanity. All it offers instead is a product to market.

Dir: Kasi Lemmons. Starring: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Nafessa Williams, Tamara Tunie, Ashton Sanders, Clarke Peters. 12A, 144 minutes.

‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ is in cinemas from Boxing Day

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