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MOVIES: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody - Review

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Whitney Houston: Wanna Dance With Somebody is the latest musician-centric biopic that will need no introduction to anyone who’s seen films like Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody or Elvis before – in fact; I Wanna Dance With Somebody proudly brags it’s from the same writer as Bohemian Rhapsody (Anthony McCarten)… whether I’d want to be associated with that monstrocity on my CV, wasn’t really up to me – and unfortunately; whist this film is smoother, it’s still largely a fairly generic paint-by-greatest-hits biopic about a famous artist: in this case, Whitney Houston, R&B pop vocalist – and so generic it never really finds a voice worthy of the voice of a generation.

Kasi Lemmons takes over directing duties for I Wanna Dance With Somebody and opens the same way that you’ve seen all music biopics start: the protagonist is about to collect some kind of award; or step on stage before their adoring fans, or both – and the film then flashes back to Whitney Houston’s early years as a gospel singer – arguing with her mother; an established singer in her own right – and threatening to quit. She’s convinced to stay – and is eventually spotted by Stanley Tucci’s Clive Davis (in a groan-worthy discovery of new sound that rivals Back to the Future; parodied ahead of its time by Walk Hard: A Dewey Cox Story) – and given an album deal – and whilst how she’s spotted is almost so bland it could be written by an AI, Tucci quickly becomes one of the film’s biggest strengths – Houston’s dynamic with Clive Davis is a surefire delight.

What follows is history: a woman as popular if not moreso than The Beatles and Elvis; with some of the greatest pop ballads of her generation – given all the passion and care needed to sell a role like this by the tremendous Naomi Ackie. But like Respect, a 2021 film directed by Lisel Tommy and staring Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin – Ackie is let down by everything around her; the script – the production – even the direction is bland; and yes – like Bohemian Rhapsody, the editing feels awkward and stilted and the concert sequences in particular never felt authentic – with half of these movies I never truly believe that the performer is performing in a stadium – and I Wanna Dance With Somebody, though of course it recreates Houston’s iconic Superbowl performance - almost feels like it’s less than interested in it as it’s far too focused on getting to the next important chapter in her career.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody introduces some promising ideas early on: Whitney’s relationship with Nafessa Williams’ Robyn Crawford lost-love is fascinating; but barely given the attention it deserves as the most interesting part of the film – and that’s why music biopics work better when they’re focused around maybe; less of a tell all and more of a moment around one particular event in their subject’s life? I Wanna Dance With Somebody ultimately feels like a victim of estate-meddling – just like Bohemian Rhapsody, the film which may have truly broken music biopics. Every scene you can see coming a mile before it happens, every beat you know’s next a few scenes away. Big important moments that feel like they could tell whole film’s worth of stories on their own are barely given five minutes of screentime: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’s insistence on telling everything lends to a conclusion that it ultimately tells nothing at all.

The pacing kills I Wanna Dance With Somebody before it can walk, but the celebration of Whitney Houston’s life and accomplishments feel told with a sense of passion that you can tell Ackie is excited to celebrate on Houston’s behalf. The film does suffer a little bit with the substance abuse and its depiction; and it isn’t entirely a success at conveying Houston’s personal life - and that’s again, due to its reluctance to answer any difficult question.

Sure; they’re posed; Houston is asked whether or not she’s “black enough” in a challenging radio interview where the host calls that she’s going to walk out – only for her to turn the tables on him – but I Wanna Dance With Somebody just simply forgets about multiple story threads and moves on. It doesn’t even mention that Houston’s daughter died three years later in the same way as Houston – not daring to get into the cause. As a result – there’s nothing really that I Wanna Dance With Somebody really has to say – and the end result all just feels surface level. There could have been a deeper film here – but I Wanna Dance With Somebody very much is not it – too beat-for-beat by the numbers; it feels like the exact polar opposite of the daring, risk-taking Elvis.

But hey, the songs are good – and maybe; at least to its creators, that’s all that matters?

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