This week on This Week in Biopics is Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (now on Netflix, in addition to VOD streaming platforms like Amazon Prime Video), which casts Naomie Ackie as the wildly talented, popular and tragic pop singer. It has the potential to be a star-making role for Ackie, who we saw in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and will see next in Mickey 17, Bong Joon-ho’s hotly anticipated follow-up to Parasite. But it also might be a thankless role, considering the following: One, the ubiquitousness of the subject. Two, the tragic arc of the singer’s life, which deserves more than a rote Behind the Music treatment. And three, the state of the biopic, especially the music biopic, in 2023; it’s pretty much dead these days, at least creatively. Harriet and Eve’s Bayou director Kasi Lemmons tries to get her arms around Whitney here, but it’s a frankly difficult task.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: We open in 1994. Whitney warms up her voice for a performance at the American Music Awards. But this isn’t really where we open – we soon jump all the way back to 1983, destroying any hope that the movie might be brave enough not to try encompassing 30 years in a person’s life in just under two-and-a-half hours. Whitney’s about 20 years old, letting rip, leading the church choir. Afterward, her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) cracks the whip: Enunciate! Know the melody inside and out! Cissy knows what she’s doing – she’s had a long career as a singer, and currently employs Whitney as a backup vocalist for club gigs. One night, Cissy spots superstar record exec Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) in the crowd, forces Whitney to fly solo on ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ and history is made.
As Clive takes Whitney under her wing, her romance with Robyn (Nafessa Williams) is strained – to hear Whitney’s dad John (Clarke Peters) say it, you can’t be America’s Pop Star Sweetheart and be seen relationshipping around with another girl. She and Robyn duke it out a bit but decide to just be friends, with Robyn working as her personal assistant, and it works. Clive pops songwriter-demo cassettes – click, whirr, ch-chunk – and Whitney picks the “great big songs.” Then Whitney sings on Merv Griffin. Whitney sings in the studio. Whitney shoots a music video. Whitney hears her song on the radio and flips the eff out. Whitney sings in front of packed arenas. Whitney gets a bottle of Dom Perignon from Clive for every no. 1 hit, and she lines up seven of them. Whitney moves into a gigantic mansion. Whitney’s dad takes control of managing the business, which smells like a bad idea. Whitney is only 23.
It continues, but this stuff isn’t always so rosy. Whitney claps back at a radio DJ who accuses her of “not being black enough.” Whitney argues with her father. Whitney tells Clive, “I wanna do a movie.” Whitney does cocaine. Whitney meets Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). Whitney sings the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. Whitney shoots The Bodyguard. Whitney sings in South Africa to honor Nelson Mandela. Whitney and Bobby get married even though he’s nothin’ but trouble. Whitney has a baby, I think – I glanced down for a sec, and all this stuff was just coming so fast. OK, I double checked: Whitney has a baby. Whitney gets less and less happy as the years go by. Whitney smokes crack. Whitney fights with Bobby. Whitney looks at the books, and her dad has been blowing money like crazy. Whitney has some rough live gigs. Whitney talks with Clive, who’s kind of her confidant. It continues like this, until it doesn’t.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: On the music-biopic scale, I Wanna Dance isn’t as nutty as Elvis, as cruddy as Bohemian Rhapsody, or as rousing as Ray. It’s about on par with middling Aretha Franklin bio Respect or The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Performance Worth Watching: Unlike Austin Butler in Elvis or Jennifer Hudson in Respect, Ackie doesn’t actually sing here, but lip-syncs the heck out of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Greatest Love of All’ and all the other hits – which isn’t a knock on her, since nobody before or since Whitney did or ever will sing like Whitney. Ackie shows considerable actorly acumen, although she’s hampered by a screenplay that tries to do way too much.
Memorable Dialogue: Whitney gets righteous and confident:
Whitney: That’s what they want – America’s sweetheart.
Robyn: And you’re gonna give it to ’em?
Whitney: Just watch me.
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Dramatized Wikipedia. I Wanna Dance with Somebody covers most every major Whitney life moment – and there are a lot of them – diligently. Some will praise Whitney’s estate for greenlighting an authorized biopic that dares to include her drug use, ugly moments from her marriage to Bobby Brown and sort-of-secret same-sex relationship. Those are facts from her life, and shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over. But Lemmons and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (who penned the similarly unimpressive Bohemian Rhapsody) never get to the truth about Whitney, piecing together one scene after another after another, as if following a timeline instead of an emotionally engaging dramatic arc. It’s like writing a pop song with lyrics, melody and rhythm, but without a hook.
This isn’t to say the film is unwatchable. It’s perfectly watchable, but disappointingly in line with ancient music-bio formulae: Elated highs, histrionic lows, montages and, of course, musical performances, which feel perfunctory when they should be electrifying. The dialogue is an awkward blend of exposition and sloganeering: “Every song is a story. If it’s not a story, it’s not a song,” “Remember: Head, heart, gut,” “I just wanna sing.” The depiction of Clive Davis – a credited producer – borders on saintly, and the rest of the supporting characters are rendered too thin to be memorable, even bad boy Bobby Brown. The tempo is choppy, the narrative full of abrupt transitions lacking the connective tissue to properly orient us in terms of setting or the emotional state of our protagonist – one moment she’s confident, and the next, she’s lugubrious.
So the film follows Whitney’s slide from the top of the world into a depressive state. But why? Drug addiction? Public scrutiny? The high-pressure music business? Her failed marriage? Mental illness? Again, these are all things that happen, but the film is so busy covering all the bases like a historical documentary, it fails to truly address the substance of her character. There’s no arguing that Whitney was an all-timer, a generational talent (an assertion reiterated so frequently in the dialogue, it becomes grating). She’s one of the GOATs – and she surely deserves more than just a baseline-watchable biopic.
Our Call: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is dutiful at best, but it never pops. SKIP IT.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.