Whitney Houston, who enthralled decades of listeners with a voice that Rolling Stone described as a “mammoth, coruscating cry”, has been the subject of many documentaries since her death in February 2012 at the age of 48, including Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017) and Whitney (2018). Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebodyis the latest look into the talented and troubled singer’s life. Promising to be a no-holds-barred telling, the biopic had the blessings of the Houston estate and Clive Davis, the record producer who first signed on the 19-year-old Houston.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody counts Anthony McCarten as the screenwriter. McCarten, incidentally, gave us an electric interpretation of Freddie Mercury’s life in Bohemian Rhapsody (minus the little people carrying trays of cocaine on their heads, of course).
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody
With such impressive and impeccable credentials, one would be forgiven for expecting an incisive and nuanced look at the pleasure and pressure of unbearable talent. Unfortunately, that is not to be. Though Naomi Ackie makes for a passable Houston and Stanley Tucci is flawless as usual as Davis, and Houston’s voice is on all those famous anthems, the film as a whole does not land right.
The movie addresses Houston’s bisexuality in her relationship with friend and assistant Robyn (Nafessa Williams camping it up). Houston’s substance abuse, her tumultuous marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) and her strained relationship with her father, John (Clarke Peters) are touched upon without any insight.
What we were left with is a rather long and jumbled series of sequences showing Houston’s discovery and subsequent stardom that earned her seven Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles consecutively between 1985 and 1988, the criticism of her not being Black enough, her acting career, relationship with Jermaine Jackson (Eddie Murphy doesn’t get a mention), courtship, marriage and eventual divorce from Brown, motherhood, her substance abuse, stints in rehab, and her comeback. The back and forth in time is disconcerting for what is after all a fairly straight recounting of events in the singer’s life.
All the famous performances from the National Anthem at the 25th Super Bowl, to ‘ I Will Always Love You’ from The Bodyguard, ‘ I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ (is it Houston’s attempt to come to terms with her sexuality?) and ‘ Saving All My Love for You’ as well as the incredibly difficult medley at the 1994 American Music Awards, are all present and correct.
The film ends with a title card lauding “The Voice”, which was Houston’s nickname for her incredible range. The tragedy of Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is that we are no closer to knowing the woman behind the voice even after spending 146 minutes with her life story.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is currently running in theatres