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I Wanna Dance With Somebody

***
2022

‘…I Wanna Dance With Somebody leaves us with more questions than answers, and the rote plotting doesn’t live up to the legacy of the subject, despite a empathetic lead performance from Ackie…’

It’s awards-friendly bio-pic time, and slightly more up-to-date than usual this time. Whitney Houston was a big new star in the 80’s, young and immeasurably gifted, she was marketed as, ‘the heartbeat of America’. But that heartbeat proved somewhat irregular, with bad management, family problems, drug issues and domestic abuse from husband Bobby Brown, and part of the problem of Sony’s lavish biopic is that Houston’s life has an inevitable downward spiral, fighting against a tragic finale that a contrived feelgood ending can’t quite conceal.

Kasi Lemmons directs Naomi Ackie as Houston, and she’s a remarkable likeness to the singer; we start by identifying her as the god-daughter of Dionne Warwick, but that plotline stops right there, and is never mentioned again. Instead, we find a new character to understand Houston’s life through; her fatherly, caring manager Clive Davis, played by Stanley Tucci. Since drama in music bio-pics is usually accompanied by bad business management, it’s something of a relief to see Houston so friendly with her manager, until it becomes clear that Davis is doing double duty here; he’s not just a character, but it’s his personal recollection of Houston’s life that’s being pushed, since he’s also one of the film’s producers. Working with the Houston estate on board, screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody) fashions a similarly bubble-gum version of Houston’s narrative, short on insight and long on music-industry clichés.

Despite a cartoonish script, I Wanna Dance With Somebody regularly reaches some impressive heights, largely due to Lemmons’ slick direction and Ackie’s exhilarating embodiment of la Houston; as a biopic, this film may pull most of its punches to duck controversy, but it does right by Houston’s voice and performances, with CGI-epic enactments of her singing for Nelson Mandela or performing the Star Spangled Banner at the Superbowl, complete with eight shots of fighter-jets to up the ante. Such cartoonish touches make Lemmons’ film sweeter to watch as a celebration of the star, but don’t get to the heart of Houston’s obvious unhappiness.

There have been recent documentaries about Houston, including Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, and the startling accusation that Houston’s pain was caused by the direct influence of a family member is white-washed here, with Houston’s drug problems presented as an easy escape from domestic agony. A family-estate encouraged bio-pic was always going to skip key issues, but while I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a lush, well-upholstered and undeniably evocative film, it comes in short on the drama that we’d hope for. A few scenes, apparently fictional, like the one in which Houston calls-out Brown for his philandering after he proposes to her in a taxi-cab, sets a high bar for invention, but generally, I Wanna Dance With Somebody sticks to the established Wikipedia facts and doesn’t provide much insight into Houston’s fall, and inadvertently tells us more about Davis’s control and clout within the music industry. Oddly, I Wanna Dance With Somebody leaves us with more questions than answers, and the rote plotting doesn’t live up to the legacy of the subject, despite a rousing, empathetic lead performance from Ackie.

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  1. The sanitisation that is required to get the music rights certainly got in the way here though i was Isuprised how well it dealt with her bisexuality, the Robyn Crawford relationship upfront from the start. Bobby Brown got off easily I thought, little sight of what got him so often arrested. The family dynamic was a bit off, too, for me, though her mother cleverly negotiating what was effectively her auditon with Clive Davis well done, as was his bisexuality. I liked the technical stuff and her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner was genuinely moving but some of the other stuff passed me by. Overlong, too, but enjoyable enough.

    • Great bits, and the sexuality and drugs were well handled from the start. But the airbrushing gets worse as the film goes on and if there’s more shots of aircraft scrambling than the abuse accusations, somebody has the story upside down. Still, music and performances should see it enjoy a long run till awards night…

  2. Thanks for the warning but I am generally a fan of biopics if I’m interested in the artists themselves. I did try the Broomfield documentary but only managed part of it. I often prefer the fictionalised biopic.

    • Kevin’s one had a bit of energy, and one major allegation that this film seems designed to quell. But not acknowledging such matters makes this feel more like an airbrushed ad. Fictional biopics don’t have to please the star’s estate, and that is why films like Velvet Goldmine work for me.

  3. I’ll watch this film because I’m a fan of director Kasi Lemmons who seems to be under-rated by many film critics but Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me and Harriet are three of the best African-American films I’ve seen.

    • Agreed. And was almost certainly a good choice to direct this. Just bear in mind that there are a few unresolved issues here…

  4. Excellent appraisal of a flawed person with an electric voice. Her music fell flat for me after watching her rude, loud, bad behavior at the Mayflower Hotel in Wash DC in the 80s…must have been on wrong meds that day. The Queen biopic was a tad more honest. Perhaps director of Raging Bull should have had a go at the script. I’ve been a fan of wiki’s for decades and had a nifty $100 cell phone sized version of wiki pages I took with me everywhere. Alas, it was stolen. As a contributor and editor, I learned the mgt. staff really do try to verify facts and cross check refs. It’s meant to serve as overview, a starting point, breadth not depth, and it’s free. What’s not to like?

    • So there’s a general rule amongst journalists that using wiki is a sackable offence. Or maybe that’s editors, or probably both. But wiki is a resource,a nd has value; the important think for any writer or reader is that facts are checked, and several sources are involved. Until we start teaching that, we’re doomed to a world of fake news…The Queen bipic may we;; be the best of the modern juke-box musical, it’s a somewhat all-over-the shop film but I really enjoyed the head-rush through pop history. Inevitably, the Houston biopic suffers because her life doesn’t have the defining performance that Live Aid provided for Queen. Keen to hear more about your encounter with Whitney at the Mayflower, one for the autobiography!? They do show her as rude and self-destructive here, but shy away from the reasons why that might have been….

  5. “this film may pull most of its punches to duck controversy” . . . “is white-washed here”

    That right there is why I steer clear not only of movies like this but any biographies written about recently deceased or (worse) still living figures. I stay well away from all this crap.

  6. Wikipedia is crowd sourced. It’s fine for nerdy things that aren’t important, but really shouldn’t be used for anything else.
    Usually you’re a little harder on biopics. Anything in particular made you give this one a hall pass to Easy Land?

    • The musical sequences are great in this, and that was good enough for the Queen biopic. But that had a huge finale that this doesn’t. Wiki isn’t terrible, but never a solo source.

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