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.