[Co-published with Geek Vibes Nation.]
Let’s start at the end.
The credits roll for Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the latest Whitney Houston biopic. A song plays. The song is “Higher Love,” a tropical house remix by Kygo of Houston’s 1990 cover of the Steve Winwood hit. Not “One Moment in Time,” the triumphant anthem to the 1988 Olympics that speaks to the diva’s singularity as a music artist. Not “Greatest Love of All,” Houston’s first pop mega-ballad that would be her signature before The Bodyguard. Hell, not even the song from which the film borrows its title. The only real significance of “Higher Love” to Houston’s catalog is its recency; it’s a chart hit that doubled as the first phase of a rebranding exercise.
That ostensibly harmless choice helps clarify I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s intentions. In the decade since Houston passed, her life and career have been reappraised. Instead of her turmoil – the drugs, her volatile marriage to singer Bobby Brown – people focused on what they loved about Houston in the first place: her voice. Her songs are legacy streaming monsters, and her image is an oft-used base for memes. A movie, sanctioned by Whitney Houston’s estate, is a logical extension, a carefully crafted opportunity to re-tell her story in this flourishing, sympathetic environment, ensuring that her legend endures (and retains its lucrative status).
And so, I Wanna Dance with Somebody dutifully hits the marks of Whitney Houston’s life. It starts with her (Naomi Ackie) singing in church as a teen with her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie). Taking her daughter’s intentions of being a singer seriously, Cissy arranges a showcase at a local nightclub attended by legendary producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). Davis quickly signs Houston, and they work to establish her musical identity while Cissy and her father, John, craft the pop princess image that would both elevate and destroy her. Houston’s life becomes a whirlwind of public performances and private conflicts, from her father’s financial malpractice to her complicated romantic relationships with best friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) and Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders). Eventually, the immense pressures take their toll, the root cause of her downfall being her inability to, as she puts it, “be me.”
You can’t help but feel Houston’s frustration since no one, not even her film, really sees her. I Wanna Dance with Somebody paints the singer as a passive figure in her life, bounced between self-interested parties. There are five here: Cissy, John, Bobby, and to less destructive extents, Clive and Robyn. They all want pieces, but the film doesn’t show what, or rather who, they’re getting. The shallow, inconsistent script, written by Bohemian Rhapsody scribe Anthony McCarten, boils Houston down into funny, feisty lines and empty platitudes about wanting to sing. We don’t get a firm handle on who she was before she became “Whitney,” which makes it difficult to see how fame and fortune changed her.
Houston’s key relationships suffer as a result. The script and pacing leave little space for them to feel tangible or coherent. The film insists that John Houston is this towering figure that Whitney adores, but doesn’t show it until after she becomes a star. It sets Cissy up as the most significant figure, only for her to vanish for large swathes of time. Brown’s destructive significance in Houston’s life has been extensively litigated, which makes his underwritten presence shocking, if not egregious. Houston’s loved ones are treated like spokes on a wheel, haphazardly cycling through her life. Unsurprisingly, the moments when the film achieves insight coincide with a closer reading of her relationships. Houston’s powwows with Clive Davis demonstrate her innate musicality, while her moments with Crawford spark with playfulness, intimacy, and heartbreak. (The film does deserve kudos for acknowledging and prominently representing Houston’s bisexuality.)
The film glosses over other key pillars of Houston’s identity: her devout Christianity, her motherhood, and, yes, her drug abuse. It’s a bizarre choice, given how critical they were to her personally and professionally and their relationships to each other. The skittishness of exploring Houston’s complexities is an understandable attempt to focus on her highlights. However, even those show a lack of care. There are distracting continuity errors and glaring timeline mistakes. (For instance, “Why Does It Hurt So Bad,” from 1995’s Waiting to Exhale, pops up during 1989 recording sessions.) The film builds itself around Houston’s iconic performances, but the recreations skew cheap, from the costumes and set design to the atrocious use of CGI-generated audiences. The closing sequence, a note-for-note remake of her 1994 American Music Awards performance, is embarrassing compared to the real thing, shown in clips immediately after.
It’s disheartening how I Wanna Dance with Somebody often leaves Naomi Ackie twisting in the wind. To her credit, she is a great Whitney Houston overall. She shines brightest when she’s off the stage, conveying the diva’s dynamic persona, her fiery off-the-cuff charm, humor, and elegance. She is capable of both swaggering confidence and meek vulnerability. Where Ackie falters is on stage, attempting to re-create Houston’s titanic stage presence. She often exaggerates her mannerisms, emphasizing the dramatics of Houston’s singing without the poise and laser-like precision. Watching Ackie lip sync at the Super Bowl only highlights how extraordinary the real performances are.
Without meaningful insight into who Houston was and with poor performance imitations, what does I Wanna Dance with Somebody offer? Well, there’s the music. Houston’s vibrant voice could enliven even the limpest affairs, and the film trades heavily on that power. It’s easy to ignore the self-imposed limitations when “How Will I Know” plays in the background. The film isn’t offensive, nor is it illuminating. Instead, the film is yet another rebranding exercise.
After decades of being misunderstood, you can’t say that Whitney Houston’s life doesn’t deserve a more generous reading. The tragedy is that, once again, the people responsible for her legacy are careless with it and her.