The nature of celebrity is that certain people can be made to feel larger than life, and few people have had more fame in their lifetime than Whitney Houston. Despite being the daughter, cousin, and wife to three other well-known singers, she overshadowed them all with her nearly unmatched voice and success in both music and movies.
The new biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a valiant attempt to detail her legendary career, as well as the behind-the-scenes drama that occasionally made its way to the public. The film begins with Houston (Naomie Ackie) on the cusp of the start of her career, still singing in her home church in New Jersey. When her mom, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), arranges for Whitney to sing in front of record executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), it’s off to the races.
The film, directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten, proceeds to go through all the highs and lows of both her professional and personal life. On the professional side, that includes her seven straight No. 1 songs in the 1980s, her iconic version of the Star-Spangled Banner at the 1991 Super Bowl, her starring turn in The Bodyguard, and many more.
On the personal side, it shows her dealing with her highly involved parents, her tempestuous relationship and marriage with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and, in a slightly surprising turn, her relationship with longtime friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). The film doesn’t tiptoe around the idea that Whitney and Robyn were more than friends, showing them romantically involved early in the film and positioning Robyn as her constant companion, even when Whitney gets involved with men.
The film is clearly at its best when it’s about the professional part of Whitney’s life, giving fun and interesting details about Whitney’s bond with Davis and showing the near-faultless beginning to her career. Her hits remain as timeless as ever, and Lemmons showcases them well, whether in live performances, recording sessions, or music video re-creations. It can sometimes be difficult to track where the film is in time, but it gives enough signposts to keep that part legible.
Lemmons and her team also do an impressive job of making Ackie’s lip-synching to Houston’s songs feel authentic. They put her in a variety of different environments – at a nightclub, in a recording booth, at different concerts – and each time it truly feels like Ackie is doing the singing even if you intellectually know that the voice you’re hearing is that of Houston.
The struggles come when trying to come to grips with her personal life. Because there is so much to cover in her career, a lot of things get short shrift. Anyone who paid attention to her during that time knows her marriage to Brown was made for the tabloids (and reality TV), but the film makes a halfhearted attempt at digging into them. Also, because it’s a PG-13 movie, it only hints at her extensive drug use, a tactic that feels designed to sugarcoat something that would ultimately be her demise.
In fact, in a way the film could be interpreted as a corrective to the 2018 documentary Whitney, which was almost unrelentingly dark, rarely allowing her music to stand on its own. This film may have gone a little too far in the opposite direction, but it seems clear that the filmmakers – which include Whitney’s sister-in-law Pat Houston and Clive Davis as producers – wanted to ensure her music was acknowledged for its greatness.
Ackie, though she doesn’t particularly look or sound like Houston, does a great job in the part. She hits all the big moments and gives the right amount of feeling to the smaller ones. Williams plays the least familiar person in the film, but she makes her into someone as important to the story as anyone else. Tucci’s performance offers a window into someone who most people only know from his signature glasses.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a toned-down version of the warts-and-all music biopic, but as a reminder of what a great singer Whitney Houston was, it works extremely well. There aren’t many surprises to be had in the film, but with a life as public as hers, that’s to be expected.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in theaters on December 23.