Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) Review
HITS ALL THE HIGH NOTES, YET
STILL AN AVERAGE ENDEAVOR
Over the years, the dramatic efforts of biopic endeavors have been something of a cinematic fascination with Hollywood, finding filmmaking talents both in front and behind the camera flocking to be a part of these theatrical motion pictures. While the idea of creating a biographical feature film about someone and / or some event isn’t anything new, it is something that’s quite beguiling of capturing the essence / mystique of a character who is based in real life and presenting he / she for a dramatic picture. Some of these endeavors might shed light on their entire life (providing the “life and times” of a particular person), while others might focus on a particular moment and / or a significant point of their lives. Recently, Hollywood has found an interesting fascination within the music industry of famed artists; recounting the ups and downs of some of the industry most celebrated individuals that have defined an age and become legends themselves. This includes the look into the life of Freddie Mercury and the popular UK band Queen in 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, the “based on a true fantasy” narrative of UK icon Elton John in 2019’s Rocketman, the rise to stardom of the powerful “soul queen” Aretha Franklin in 2021’s Respect, and the complexed life of fame and control in the “king of rock and roll” Elvis Presley in 2022’s Elvis. Now, Sony Pictures (along with TSG Entertainment and Black Label Media) and director Kasi Lemmons present the latest biographical drama that takes a look into the rise and fall (and everything between) of the musician Whitney Houston in the film titled Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Does the movie find its voice in brings Houston’s story to cinematic light or is it a shallow endeavor that only “plays the hits” of the talented artist tragic tale?
Raised by singing mother, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackle) was brought up to use her natural vocal gift in a commanding way, developing a strong and powerful voice as well as solid stage presence. Supported by close girlfriend Robyn (Nafessa Williams), Whitney is soon approached by Arista Records producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who introduces the young hopeful star to songs that are capable of launching her career. In time, the world begins to adore Whitney numerous hits and bubbly outward personality, making her one of the best-selling artists of her time, but her life finds ways to disrupt her path to stardom success, including her attraction to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), a fellow pop star and bad influence, helping Whitney reach her darkest days in her life. As the years pass, Whitney struggles with drug addictions and the demands of fame, seeking out to people to trust as she tries to carry on, leaving her vulnerable to several devious temptations as she tries to maintain a fledgling career.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Borrowing some lines from my review of 2022’s Elvis…. Within the many viewings of movies that I’ve seeing over the years, biopic dramas features are (to me) quite endearing to watch. Most of these endeavors are pretty well-made and usually a sense of “Oscar-bait” and / or “award contenders” from upcoming award seasons in Hollywood. To that degree, the features being told have also been quite compelling to watch, especially ones that uncover the lives of pronounced individuals and the affect that they left on history. Redirecting to what I mentioned in the opening paragraph, the recent fascination of adapting bio-pics movies that center around musical icons and artist is quite interesting. Of course, some of these individuals have been well-documented throughout the course of their lifespans and beyond, yet there is always more to say and do. What made the famous? What drove them? Who was behind their insecurities and downfall? How did they cope with adversary as famed talents? Naturally, the movies I mentioned do shine a light on the superstars, with Bohemian Rhapsody showing Freddie Mercury’s life, who wrestles with his identity and managing his time with business partners / band mates, while Rocketman presents a similar notion of depicting Elton John’s past struggles and his identity have an effect on his music career relationships as well as Aretha Franklin, who wrestled with loved ones and finding her own self-worth in the music business as seeing the film Respect, and Elvis Presley, who battled against his own demons as well as being forever controlled by his manager in Elvis. Naturally, the acting talents involved in these films rose to the challenge and captured some terrific performances, with actors Rami Malek and Taron Egerton multi-faceted adaptations of Freddie and Elton, while Hudson delivers a riveting portrayal of Aretha and Austin Butler gave a likeable and endearing performance as Elvis. Of course, their legacy in the music industry as made their “claiming to fame”, with the respected movies showcasing the high points of musical kaleidoscope carousel from the mini-concert ending in Bohemian Rhapsody, to the song-filled fantasy escapades in Rocketman, and soulful and powerful voice that is shown in Respect, to the charsmiatic and stylish roller coaster of a life in Elvis.
Which one is my favorite? Well, it’s kind of hard to say. I would say that I like Elvis the best, with director Baz Luhrmann bring such his “A” game to the endeavor and making a feature film about Presley’s life so mystifying and colorful to watch. After that, I would say that it is a tossup between Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. Not to disrespect the movie Respect (nor Franklin’s legacy), but I found the other three entries to be more entertaining and engaging. Nevertheless, the recent music bio-pic endeavors from Hollywood seem to capture the imagination of reimagining iconic singers, talents, and artists into a cinematic light that encapsulates the celebration of their music as well as holding up the mirror of their lives in an unvarnished way of the brilliance and madness at the same time.
This bring me back around to talking about Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, a 2022 biographical drama that takes a look into the life of famous musical artist of Whitney Houston. As mentioned, given the amount of attention that Hollywood has been giving towards musical artist biopics, it was almost a forgone conclusion that a studio would want to do a feature film project on the life of Whitney Houston. It wasn’t long until such an announcement was made, which I do remember hearing about on several movie internet websites that I frequently visit a few months. Before long, I do recall remembering seeing a movie trailer for a movie called I Wanna Dance with Somebody during the “coming attractions” previews when I went out to my local theater. From the trailer alone, the film looked to be another solid biopic endeavor, which was mostly going to show the “rise and fall” of Houston’s fame and personal struggles. Plus, like Austin Butler in Elvis, I didn’t know much about Naomi Ackle, who was set to play the main title character of the film (Whitney Houston) and it would be interesting to see how she did. Plus, like Elvis, I was wondering how the movie would portray the iconic singer, especially since Houston’s life is shrouded in drug addictions and bad relationships. Additionally, growing up in the late 80s / early 90s, I always liked Houston’s voice and her songs. So, I was quite interested to see this movie when it was set to be released on December 23rd, 2022. I did want to go see this movie during its opening weekend, but, due to my work schedule, I had to wait two weeks to go see the feature. Plus, with my movie reviews catalogue was a little bit backed up, I decided to push back my review for this movie, so I could play “catch up” with other 2022 movies. Now, I finally am “catching up” to everything and ready to share my personal thoughts on this film. And what did I think of it? Well, it was okay. Despite a strong performance from Ackle as well as the rest of the cast and some great highlights throughout Houston’s career (both good and bad), I Wanna Dance with Somebody is too rigid to break free of the confines of a standard biopic endeavor. It’s still a good and entertaining movie that celebrates “The Voice’s” life and her memory, but lacks the stylish dynamics and doesn’t really unearth anything new to Houston’s career that hasn’t been already mentioned.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose previous directorial works include such films like Talk to Me, Black Nativity, and Harriet. Given her affinity towards looking into the lives of African American characters (and bringing their stories to cinematic light), Lemmons seems like a suitable director to bring Houston’s life story to cinematic light, approaching the subject material with a sense of “remembrance” and “legacy” to the feature’s pedigree. Of course, those who know of Houston’s life is one of tragedy and celebration, with a very detailed account as to her career and person. Lemmons seems to know that gives the feature a reason to find its “voice” (pun intended) to help build upon a cinematic commemoration for Houston’s memory. This sort of plays a little bit of a “double edge” sword as the movie doesn’t go deep enough (more on that below), but Lemmons knows what most people sort of want to see, especially those who fell in love with the talented musician and the songs that she produced throughout her career. In truth, Lemmons doesn’t want to tarnish or shatter the image of the singer in I Wanna Dance with Somebody, but rather preserves Whitney’s façade in the usage of a cinematic treatment. To be fair, Lemmons chronology of the sequence of events in a very manner and well-made way, which make the feature easily accessible to all…. even to the non-initiated of Houston’s music.
In addition to this, I Wanna Dance with Somebody places a lot emphasis on Houston’s musical hits (as to be expected) and does certainly harmonize with the iconic musician legacy. With so many numerous singles and popular hits that made Whitney’s voice so gosh darn memorable, it’s quite amazing that Lemmons is able to place each of the songs into the movie, which doesn’t over to do it. Naturally, the musical number sequences, which either can be a musical video snippets or concert performances, are the definitely highlight. So, hearing old familiar songs like “How Will I Know”, “I Will Always Love You”, “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”, and (of course) “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” are definitely great to hear throughout the feature and Lemmons has special interest to making those moments quite memorable in the movie. This is especially made noticeable during the film’s ending musical medley, which deliver a very rousing and rejoices performance for both Whitney (as a character) and definitely closes out the film on a resonating feeling. Overall, while not the absolute highlight best of a recent musical biopic, Lemmons still manages to display and celebrate the life of Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance with Somebody by ways and means of chronicling “The Voice’s” career and remembering her musical hits that charmed everyone.
For its presentation, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a solid film that meets the industry standard of today’s biopic endeavors. That’s not to say that the movie “looks” mediocre or anything like that as the film does come alive within the authenticity nuances as well as the various time periods (circa 80s to 90s). Of course, this plays a part in the film’s undertaking, and I felt that the film’s behind the scenes team, including Gerald Sullivan (production design), David Offner (art direction), Tricia Peck and Patricia Sullivan (set decorations), and Daysha Broadway (film editing), did a good job in bringing this movie to light in a very appealing and visible way. I also have to mention (separately) the work done by Charlese Antoinette Jones on the movie, who is in charge of the feature’s costume designs. While most of the supporting cast are dressed accordingly for their respective roles, Jones’s work on “imagining” actress Naomi Ackie as Whitney Houston’s extensive wardrobe is quite fantastic. Every single piece of outfit she wears is quite dazzling to behold whenever on-screen. Even the entire hair / make-up should be commended for their efforts made throughout the movie, which (again) holds up to the times setting eras that I Wanna Dance with Somebody covers during its duration. Next, the film’s cinematography work by Barry Ackroyd is just okay. There are a few moments of flourishes where I think his work does shine through, but I felt a little bit underwhelmed by it. Lastly, the film’s score, which was composed by Chanda Dancy, is pretty good and definitely compliments the movie’s soundtrack numbers that I mentioned above.
Unfortunately, I Wanna Dance with Somebody does draw criticism throughout the movie, which does hold the feature back from reaching such memorable stance in its category of other musical biopics. How so? Well, for starters, the movie itself is pretty straightforward and lacks the cinematic flourishes and dramatics throughout the movie. I know that sounds like a very serious one to tackle, but it’s quite the big one for me. What do I mean by that? Well, Lemmons isn’t quite adept in trying to delve into the machinations of Houston’s life, regardless if they were ups or downs, which does come through the movie quite obviously. That’s not to say that she is a bad director or anything, but Lemmons sort of lacks the creative influences and dramatic flairs to help heighten such palpable. Given the artistic presentation of such musical biopics as Rocketman and Elvis, I Wanna Dance with Somebody feels pretty generic and rather plain in comparison, with very little creative ingenuity to “spice up” the feature’s narrative / presentation. Thus, this renders the movie rather straightforward and not much “spark” to the feature other than chronicling the life of Whitney Houston.
Coinciding with this aspect of the film, I Wanna Dance with Somebody lacks any type of new insight into Houston’s life. Much like other musical artist biopics out there, the story of Whitney Houston has been well documented through a series of documentary examination and in new articles throughout the years, leaving little to no stone unturned. Thus, this particular movie doesn’t have much else to reveal about this sensational and iconic artist that has already been said. In truth, I felt that Lemmon’s approach to this feature acts less than a deep and methodical look chronology (regardless of the storytelling framework that the movie employs) and more of a celebration of made Whitney Houston, flaws and all. Perhaps the script, which was penned by Anthony McCarten, tries a bit too much to try and examine everything that goes on with Houston’s life story as well complying every major hit and occurrence that played an important impact on her narrative. This is where the film struggles, especially as the movie tries to say all of this within a limits motion picture framework. This result in the script saying a lot of about Houston’s tale, yet only glossing the surface through all by only touching on certain parts to sort of “cover the basis”. Plus, as mentioned above, this “by the book” script doesn’t get into the finite details of Houston’s plights and challenges as much as intended, which makes the movie feel a little bit weak in its theatrical bite…. sort of speak.
That being said, the script also misses out on some important pieces of information that could’ve been more insightful to the feature’s narrative. One prime example of this is in Whitney’s childhood years, which would help explain difficult time of her early years with her parents and how that affected her…both in exceling and hindering her in the process. Another portion is also her relationship with Bobby Brown and how that affected her personal life as well as her career. Unfortunately, the movie only touches upon such moments and makes the film feel a little bit “lite” when it could’ve been so much more, especially given all that had happened in Houston’s career. All in all, I Wanna Dance with Somebody has a lot to say about Houston’s life story, through tears, celebration, revelations, and reflections, yet struggles to find the common ground in examining such ideas as the feature tries to cram into way too many such nuances for a rather “glossed” overlook into “The Voice”.
The cast in I Wanna Dance with Somebody is pretty good all the way around and do help elevate some of the weaker elements of the feature. As mentioned, the script does leave a lot to be desired, especially since the movie wants to explore all the various players that play a part of Whitney’s life and sort of skips around certain aspects that could’ve been examined a lot further. Still, the cast does what they can with the material given to them and does make the film’s characters enjoyable throughout. Of course, the film’s “headliner” would definitely have to be actress Naomi Ackie, who plays the central protagonist role of the famous Whitney Houston. Known for her roles in Lady Macbeth, The End of the F***ing World, and Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, Ackie isn’t quite the “household” name, but she is certainly on the rise to becoming one, especially with recent projects she has worked on, including this one. Thus, her involvement in this particular film is indeed a welcome one and does create a stirring and memorable performance in the iconic musical artist portrayal. She definitely leads all the scenes that she’s in and handles all the material well to make for a compelling character, especially when examining a lot of Whitney’s various struggles and triumphs. This is where the movie sort of misses the mark when it sort of “skips around” those key important parts of Whitney’s career and personal life. Still, Ackie truly commits to the character and definitely handles such powerful moments through laughs, tears, and revelations. In the end, while she doesn’t personally sing in the movie (the film uses lip-synching method), Ackie gives the right amount of energy and stage presence / screen presence to make her portrayal of Whitney Houston likeable and memorable in the picture.
Behind Ackie, I would have to actor Stanley Tucci (Spotlight and Julie & Julia) gives a solid (all-the-way around) performance as Clive Davis, Whitney’s record producer. Tucci has always carried himself as a very skilled actor throughout his career and his involvement in this movie definitely lends weight and is quite grounded in his portrayal of Clive Davis. His scenes with Ackie are great and he acts as the seasoned veteran actor on the project. All in all, a great character role for Tucci to play. In addition, actress Nafessa Williams (Black and Blue and Black Lightning) gives a memorable performance in her portrayal as Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s longtime friend and close relationship companion. Williams definitely showcases plenty of talent in this movie and gives the character of Robyn a very interesting appeal, especially in displaying the close bond that she had with Houston.
The other supporting characters in the movie such as Whitney’s parents (Cissy and John Houston), who are played by actress Tamara Tunie (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Black Earth Rising) and actor Clarke Peters (The Wire and Harriet), give great performances in their respective roles. Both Tunie and Peters are great character talents and clearly demonstrate that in the movie by handling the their portrayals of Whitney’s parental figures. That being said, the movie sort of misses out on certain opportunities by exploring some of the upbringings and tendencies made by Cissy and John Houston and how they “managed” their daughters. Yes, the film does explore a few details such as Cissy’s perfection in shaping Whitney’s voice and John’s “management” control over his daughter, but I felt that certain nuances could’ve been easily expanded upon to help build a better dynamic amongst the Houston family. Still, Tunie and Peters are solid in the roles. Also, actor Ashton Sanders (Captive State and Moonlight) does a somewhat job as Bobby Brown, Whitney’s husband and abusive partner. True, much like Tunie and Peters, Sanders does do a good job in playing up the character, yet the script still writes Bobby in such a thin light and barely scratches the surface on what could’ve been quite an examined pieces, especially since he played a major part in Whitney’s inner turmoil. It’s just a shame that more could’ve been expanded upon.
Lastly, the rest of the cast, including actor Daniel Washington (The Tender Bar and I Care a Lot) as Gary Houston, actor JaQuan Malik Jones (Last Call at the Blind Beggar) as Michael Houston, actress Kris Sidberry (Detroit and Web of Lies) as Pat Houston, actor Dave Heard (The Unholy and Ted 2) as Rickey Minor, actor Coffey (Solo Kings and About the People) as James, actor Lance A. Williams (Don’t Look Up and The Equalizer 2) as Gerry Griffith, and actresses Ballie Lopes (making her debut in the movie) and Bria Danielle Singleton (This Little Light and The Loud House) as Bobbi Kristina (Lopes 8-11 years old and Singleton 16-19 years old), are delegated to minor supporting players in the film. While some only have a few scenes here and there in the feature, all of these acting talents are pretty good in my opinion and are likeable throughout the movie.
Whitney Houston. The Voice. The artist that launched a magnanimous career and unforgettable songs takes center stage and looks back on her life in the movie Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. Director Kasi Lemmon’s latest film gives a cinematic treatment for Houston’s story to be told that frames a feature that recalls her highest highs and lowest lows that embodies the tragic tale of young and talented music artists that battle against their own demons within the stardom of popularity. While the movie struggles to find its own proper footing by being a rather traditional biopic drama as well as glossing over / playing the highlights of Houston’s career, the film still manages to be fun to watch and entertaining throughout, with several directional facets, the musical numbers, and a good acting performance from the cast, especially in Ackle. Personally, I thought that this movie was somewhere between okay and good. The movie still quite moving and engaging with looking back into Houston’s life and the music she left behind, but the film’s framework lacks cinematic creativity and flourishing desire to showcase more insight Houston’s life, which renders the feature in a very strict and standard biopic….in my opinion. Still, my recommendation is both a “recommendation” and a “rent it” as I’m sure that fans of Houston’s work will enjoy the picture as well as casual moviegoers who are looking at the latest Hollywood musical artist biopic drama project. I think it’s about the same level as Respect (maybe just slightly better), but nowhere as memorable as Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, or Elvis. In the end, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody cinematic chronological does find merit and heart within honor Whitney Houston’s legacy and the mark she made on the music industry, but doesn’t unveil or reveal anything new to longtime fans in the woman behind “The Voice” in an otherwise straightforward and standard narrative presentation.
3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)
Released On: December 23rd, 2022
Reviewed On: March 1st, 2023
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is 146 minutes long and rated PG-13 for strong drug content, some strong language, suggestive references, and smoking.