Naomi Ackie portrays Whitney Houston in this conventional bipic of the US megastar singer

I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Source: © 2021 CTMG, Inc.

‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

Dir: Kasi Lemmons. US. 2022. 144mins

Despite its sunnier stretches, I Wanna Dance With Somebody ultimately sings a sad song about Whitney Houston, the phenomenally talented vocalist who left behind a string of indelible hit singles before her death in 2012 aged 48. This biopic reaches its high point early on, as Bafta-winner Naomi Ackie vividly portrays the pop star during her meteoric ascent. But once the film reaches Houston’s later career, when drugs and a difficult marriage began to take their toll, the story doesn’t just become more downbeat but also more of a slog, falling to find an insightful angle into this slow-motion tragedy.

I Wanna Dance’s fairly pedestrian approach can’t fully tamp down the resonance of Houston’s vocals

Hitting US theatres on December 23, with the UK rollout starting three days later, Sony’s holiday release should cater to Houston’s many fans who still remain shocked by her passing a decade later. (The singer drowned in a hotel bathtub, with cocaine cited as a factor in her accidental death.) Posthumous documentaries such as Whitney: Can I Be Me? (co-directed by Nick Broomfield) and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney have offered portraits of her life, but I Wanna Dance, written by biopic specialist Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Theory of Everything), offers a conventional rise-then-fall narrative that even those with only a passing interest in the artist will find accessible.

Ackie (a 2017 Screen Star Of Tomorrow) takes the role of Houston, who longed to be a performer from a young age. Catching the eye (and ear) of influential music executive Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), Houston signs a record contract, quickly delivering a series of smashes, including ’Saving All My Love For You’ and ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)’. But after meeting another rising performer, Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), she begins a tumultuous relationship that leads to increasing drug use.

The film boasts a sturdy music-biopic familiarity: when I Wanna Dance unveils Houston’s ubiquitous, buoyant hits, there’s a pleasing predictability; especially when we witness the singer carefully selecting the material she’ll record. (Because she rarely wrote her songs, she needed an unerring instinct for potential singles, and the scenes of Davis and her listening to different demos, trying to find hidden gems, are quite satisfying.) 

Although Ackie lip-syncs along to Houston’s vocals, the actress is so persuasive that the audience understands why Houston was nicknamed “The Voice” for her one-of-a-kind instrument. I Wanna Dance recreates several iconic moments, such as Houston’s rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at the 1991 Super Bowl, and Ackie channels the late singer’s emotion and star power. Early in the film, Houston is told that every song should tell a story, and Ackie gives these classics a dramatic heft.

Director Kasi Lemmons, whose last feature was 2019’s Oscar-nominated Harriet, doesn’t shy away from societal commentary, exploring how Houston’s closeted romance with childhood friend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) was kept under wraps — in particular, by Houston’s closed-minded father John (Clarke Peters), who thought it abhorrent and also bad for her image. In addition, I Wanna Dance addresses Houston’s frustration at being labeled a sellout by Black fans for making music that appealed to white audiences. 

One wishes that these aspects of Houston’s life were examined in a more thoughtful fashion, but it’s indicative of I Wanna Dance’s strategy to gloss over rather than dig in. The picture is especially wobbly when it fast-forwards through her initial celebrity, resorting to uninspired montages as she climbs the charts. As much as Ackie conveys Houston’s inner spark and occasional insecurity, the character gets drowned out by the highlight-reel treatment. And when drugs begin to overwhelm Houston — not to mention an unfaithful husband who bedevils her — the film never successfully dramatises her fall, instead simply lingering on her misery.

Sanders proves to be a one-dimensional Brown, all boringly brazen arrogance, although Tucci can be quite lovely as supportive father figure Davis. (It is worth mentioning, however, that Davis himself serves as one of the picture’s producers.) Still, even I Wanna Dance’s fairly pedestrian approach can’t fully tamp down the resonance of Houston’s vocals. That’s never more true than in a final sequence that tries to give audiences a fresh way of thinking about Houston’s massive talent and terrible death; Lemmons celebrates Houston while also lamenting the greatness left unfulfilled. Transcendent performers can take a song and make it their own — unfortunately, it’s only at the end that I Wanna Dance risks doing anything so bold, not just recycling Houston’s life but recasting it in a startling new register.

Production companies: Compelling Pictures, Muse of Fire, Primary Wave Music, West Madison Entertainment

Worldwide distribution: Sony Pictures

Producers: Christina Papagjika, Matt Salloway, Matt Jackson, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill, Larry Mestel, Clive Davis, Pat Houston, Anthony McCarten, Jeff Kalligheri, Denis O’Sullivan Screenplay: Anthony McCarten

Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd

Production Design: Gerald Sullivan 

Editing: Daysha Broadway

Music: Chanda Dancy

Main cast: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Nafessa Williams, Tamara Tunie, Clarke Peters