A music biopic so broad and hacky it makes “Jersey Boys” seem like “All that Jazz,” Kasi Lemmons’ well-acted but laughably trite “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is an anonymous portrait of a singular artist — a by-the-numbers “Behind the Music” episode that needs 146 minutes to say almost nothing about a once-in-a-lifetime voice. Not even “Bohemian Rhapsody” was so obviously written by the guy who wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” as Anthony McCarten’s algorithmic script skips down the various sections of Houston’s Wikipedia page with all the flow of a scratched greatest hits CD.
Here’s young Whitney as a choir soloist at the New Jersey church where she discovers her love for music. There she is at Arista Records’ HQ listening to the demo track for her future hit single, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (“It’s about wanting to dance with somebody,” she says approvingly). Once her career takes off, the rest of her life is reduced to a diminishingly unsophisticated series of reactions to whatever happened in the previous scene, which doesn’t express Houston’s struggle to be everything to everyone so much as it does this movie’s desperation to be anything to anyone.
Whitney’s militaristic father demands that she break up with her secret girlfriend Robyn and play straight for the public? Cut to: Whitney announcing that she had sex with Jermaine Jackson. Whitney can’t stand the criticism that she isn’t Black enough? Cut to: Her flirting with rising R&B star Bobby Brown at the Soul Train Awards. Whitney mollifies Robyn’s panic with a calm “it’s not like we’re getting married?” Cut to: A scene we’ve been so well-trained to predict that actually watching it seems redundant (although it serves as a valuable reminder not to marry anyone tacky enough to pop the question in the back of a stretch limo).
Oh, well, it’s not as if there’s much hope left for Lemmons’ biopic at that point. Even by the time Whitney is discovered by Clive Davis at a New Jersey nightclub (an all-time groaner of a “you know that new sound you’re looking for?” moment), “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” has already become such a self-parody of its own genre that I kept waiting for Houston to perform a duet with Dewey Cox. At least that would have provided an unexpected note in an estate-approved film that’s been fully authorized within an inch of its life.
And yet, the abject laziness of the film’s construction isn’t quite enough to diminish the spirited zeal of its cast. That naturally begins with rising star Naomi Ackie (“Lady Macbeth”), whose radiant lead performance so convincingly suffuses octaves of feeling into a script full of flat notes that you will likely often forget she was lip-syncing Houston’s songs. Demure one minute, domineering the next, and always possessed with a self-belief that she can’t quite extend to the people around her, Ackie’s take on Houston would’ve been a wonderful character if this movie were as interested in the singer as it is in her songs.
As it stands, Whitney’s character development slows to a crawl shortly once she turns 19 and becomes Clive Davis’ new favorite client (the menschy, business-minded Davis is played by a very Stanley Tucci Stanley Tucci). It’s only during her earlier days — which “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” races through in about 15 minutes flat — that we get a clearer sense of what she wants, where she’s coming from, and what she might be afraid of leaving behind. Whitney’s relationship with her mom Cissy (the ever-reliable Tamara Tunie) is one of the film’s greatest strengths, never more so than during the scenes when she dragoons her teenage daughter into making the most of her god-given talents.
Does Cissy, a lifelong backup singer who feels overshadowed by nieces Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick, put undue pressure on Whitney to succeed where she fell short? It’s possible. But Cissy’s outsized ambition never comes at the expense of her maternal tenderness, and Tunie’s carefully balanced performance speaks volumes about the source of Whitney’s strength, just as Clarke Peters’ incisive but unflattering take on the superstar’s hyper-patriarchal father speaks volumes about Whitney’s struggle to own that strength offstage.
Defanged as this film can feel, that it was made with full support of the singer’s brother and sister-in-law makes it all the more damning that her father comes off as such a womanizing money monster (it’s funny that Cissy doesn’t age a day across the script’s almost 40-year span, while John Houston devolves from virile DILF to the Crypt Keeper as if sin itself were ravaging his skin).
It’s also during those formative teenage years that Whitney befriends Robyn Crawford (a compelling Nafessa Williams, who ironically played Bobby Brown’s pregnant ex-girlfriend in the Angela Bassett-directed Lifetime movie “Whitney,” one of the previous Houston bio-projects that “profoundly disappointed the fans and the people closest to her,” according to a saucy line in the press notes for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”). The two cross paths in a meet-cute that’s scripted and scripted with all the excitement of swiping a Metrocard, but Ackie and Williams embrace the ease of their characters’ mutual attraction.
Sadly relegated to the stuff of rumor until after Houston’s death, the singer’s relationship with Crawford is at least somewhat reclaimed here as — if not the greatest love of all — the rare circumstance in Houston’s life when love gave to her without taking. What Houston gave back to Crawford is less clear, as this movie is too busy jumping between the bullet points of Houston’s biography to bother exploring how she felt about her. Ostracized and neglected as Crawford may have been by Houston’s family, it’s hard to imagine that Houston herself was as cruelly indifferent to her ex-girlfriend and creative director as she appears here.
Overstuffed and underwritten, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” falls back on Whitney’s feeling of being spread thin between too many people at once as an excuse for making her a passenger in this warp-speed telling of her own life story. Things eventually move fast enough that scenes bleed into each other over the soundtrack, the beats of McCarten’s checklist-like script smudged by the constant undercurrents of crowd noise that carry the movie from one concert to the next.
The film’s cram-it-all-in approach makes it impossible for “Eve’s Bayou” director Lemmons to assert her usual control, or to anchor even the most tragic moments of Houston’s life with the gravity they deserve (the scene where she miscarries during the middle of a take while shooting “The Bodyguard” feels nearly as artificial as the CGI fighter jets that scream over her Super Bowl performance).
Grateful as fans might be that this glossy biopic doesn’t go full “Blonde,” the bit where Bobby turns violent would barely even register if not for the volatility of Ashton Sanders’ clenched performance, while more time is spent on the covert manner by which Whitney acquired her drugs than on why she began using them in the first place. And while Whitney’s relationship with her daughter is too pure for even the most superficial of biopics to diminish its love and sadness, those feelings exist purely in the abstract, and don’t feel any more nuanced or personal than they would have without the previous two hours as a prelude.
“Every song is a story,” someone says, “if it’s not a story, it’s not a song.” Well, all-time chart-toppers like “When You Believe,” “Higher Love,” and “I Will Always Love You” are definitely songs, so where are the stories behind them? Watching “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” I couldn’t help but wonder if if McCarten-esque karaoke biopics — which unfold more like animated jukeboxes than full-bodied dramas — don’t fail at honoring their subjects so much as they succeed at letting audiences sing along to their lives.
Maybe people want to watch a movie for the first time and feel as if they can already mouth the words to every line, because the real subject of these music biopics aren’t the icons who inspired them, but rather the enjoyment that we continue to take from their work… and the streaming money that our rediscovered enthusiasm inspires from us in turn. We used to have greatest hits CDs, and now we have glorified cosplay. And yet the cosplay is obviously great here, and so are the hits.
“To sing with the gods,” one character says, “sometimes you need a ladder.” Or maybe you just need the rights.
Sony Pictures will release “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” in theaters on Friday, December 23.
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