Monday, June 17, 2024

Review: Whitney Houston’s Complex Life, Stunning Highs and Lows, Captured in New Film, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”


It’s not easy to make a single movie about Whitney Houston. The late great singer had so many highs and lows before her death in 2012 at age 48, a soup to nuts biopic would seem daunting.

And yet, Kasi Lemmons has made a very triumphant film with a screenplay by Anthony McCarten. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” very deftly manages Houston’s skyrocketing career counterpointed by her difficult family life and eventual descent into drugs.

The film’s accomplishments are often surprising, starting with Naomi Ackie’s take on Houston’s turbulence. Ackie has a fine voice of her own, and she often uses it throughout the film. But the majority of the singing is from Whitney herself, Luckily Clive Davis — who’s a character in the film played kind of brilliantly by Stanley Tucci — is also a producer. So he’s brought all of Whitney’s sizzling live recordings to the film, which Ackie seamlessly lip syncs.

This shouldn’t work but it does, and it’s to Lemmons’ credit that she’s able to recreate most of Whitney’s classic videos and concert appearances. Many stand out, but Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl is unforgettable as reenacted here.

Ackie and Tucci as Whitney and Clive have a very enjoyable rapport in the film thanks to McCarten’s excellent screenplay. The affection between them is genuine. They are not the only actors firing on all cylinders. Tamara Tunie and veteran actor Clarke Peters capture the essence of Whitney’s parents, Cissy and John Houston. I knew these people for a long time, and I was blown away how the actors were able to embody these complicated relationships.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” does not shy away from Whitney’s romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford, or her increasing dependence on drugs. Even though Bobby Brown seems like the villain of the piece, it’s clear that Whitney’s brothers introduced her to drugs in the first place. None of this swept under the rug. It’s all dealt with head on, and all of Whitney’s tribulations are woven into the two hour, twenty minute film.

The filmmakers could not make a miniseries. They were charged with making a film. So a lot of the unpleasant stuff that happened in the 2000s– Whitney and Bobby’s reality series, for example — is simply avoided. Believe me there’s enough material that every beat is played, I was happy not see some of Whitney’s worst episodes splashed onto the screen. The viewer gets the point without it being hammered over the head.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is no whitewash. It’s a balanced mix of dark and light. But in the end what propels it is The Voice, the best voice of her generation. Whitney Houston’s music is what survives the scandal and gossip, and that gorgeous shimmering sound is what remains.

The movie opens December 21st in 3,000 theaters– no streaming. You’ll want to see it on a big screen. Sadly, Sony missed deadlines for the Critics Choice and Golden Globes — they would have gotten nods in many categories.

More on the movie’s opening night later today…

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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