Hitting theaters Friday, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is perhaps the purest definition of the big screen musical. Watching the movie, you get the feeling that someone handed screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) a studio note that simply read, “Play the hits.”
Depending on whether you’re an ardent fan of the late pop star, that can be a good thing or a bad thing.
“I Want To Dance With Someone” begins in Houston’s high school years in New Jersey (although the film was), where she is building her voice at a local church under the tutelage of her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie, “Flight”). Before long, she’s singing in a nightclub in front of Arista Records president Clive Davis (a sublime Stanley Tucci), and from there, rising to stardom.
Naomi Ackie (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”) may not look or sound much like Houston, but she embodies her spirit. Eager to please but quick to adopt an attitude, almost overwhelmed with anxiety but radiating energy on stage, Ackie fully immerses herself in the role. Ackie’s lip syncing and choreography during the performances are perfect. She sounds like a backhanded compliment, but the movie uses Houston’s inimitable voice wisely.
Ackie’s stage presence is crucial because “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” spends an inordinate amount of time on stage. If you keep a timer to the first 100 minutes of the movie, it’s almost certain that the scenes with musical performances take up more than half that time. Fresh off the top of watching Ackie sing one of Houston’s chart-topping hits, the audience is presented with a cursory scene in which Davis performs a Houston demo, and she begins to nod her head to the beat. . Then we went back to Houston singing that same song on stage. Then a variation of that pattern begins again. And again. And again.
For fans deeply familiar with Houston’s life story, this shouldn’t be a problem, as the re-enactment of her most iconic moments makes for an uplifting spectacle. Whether it’s a young Houstonor possibly doing the at the Super Bowl (with Gillette Stadium instead of Raymond James Stadium in the movie), at least one, if not several, musical numbers of “I Wanna Dance” will give you goosebumps.
But for those who want to know more about Houston than can be found on her Wikipedia page, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” skimps on telling the singer’s full story, which shouldn’t be possible, given its running time. of 146 minutes. The only relationship the film explores in any depth is the one between Houston and her best friend, creative director and former lover, Robyn Crawford (“Black Lightning”). The film does not shy away from the physicality ofand shows how Houston’s religious upbringing, the pressures of their family, and the impossibility of being a mainstream queer pop star impacted them.
Houston’s relationships with her parents and husband, former New Edition singer (and Roxbury native) Bobby Brown, fall short. Playing her father, Clarke Peters (“The Wire”) is a true villain, squeezing every penny out of Houston, even on her deathbed. Perhaps surprisingly, Brown (played admirably by “Moonlight’s” Ashton Sanders) comes across less as a cad and more as an innocent cad, someone who is complicit in Houston’s troubles but rarely intentionally causes them. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of either of them.
Also somewhat overlooked are Houston’s battles with substance abuse, which contributed in part to her accidental drowning death in 2012. Director Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) shows Houston discreetly buying cocaine, but not inhaling never a line She shows Houston rummaging through drawers for a pipe, then quickly cuts to her vacuuming the house like a maniac.
If you accept the version of Houston life that “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” wants to tell, you’re in for a beautiful night at the movies. But seeing the names of Clive Davis and Patricia Houston (Whitney Houston’s sister-in-law) on the list of producers, one wonders if there was a more cohesive film with more risqué and deeper material that was left behind in the cutting room.
Classification: ** stars (out of 4)
“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” opens in theaters nationwide on December 23.
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