Whitney Houston Biopic I Wanna Dance Falls Frustratingly Flat
Kasi Lemmons is far too talented a director for Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody to be a complete waste of time. The creative force behind films like Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, and Harriet, Lemmons is great at finding unique and imaginative ways to buck convention, and this chronicle of Whitney Houston’s rise to superstardom, her turbulent marriage to Bobby Brown, and her accidental death in 2012 is no exception.
But the roughly 30 years covered in this drama were maybe too tumultuous for Lemmons or Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten (The Two Popes) to easily shrink down to just under 150 minutes of narrative material. After a terrific opening showcasing Houston’s (Naomi Ackie) romantic friendship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), the singer’s symbiotic relationship with legendary music producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), and her showstopping appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, things sadly slip into antiquated musical biopic conformity from that point on.
Why is this a problem? There’s no time to build characters, no room for Houston’s story to authentically evolve. While the filmmakers stick close to the historical events, much of what transpires throughout the second and third acts still feels contrived. The film can’t breathe, scenes devolving into episodic tedium so quickly I almost got whiplash trying to make sense of what was happening.
It is a testament to the undying magnificence of Houston’s songs (she’s known as “The Voice” for good reason) and Ackie’s tremendous performance that it all remains so easy to watch. The combination of the two is stratospheric as far as greatness is concerned. Houston’s skills as an artist — if you’ll excuse the obvious pun — sing for themselves. As for Ackie’s ability to live inside the iconic singer’s skin, she transforms herself so completely, it is almost as if Houston had been reborn.
I did like the early segments a whole heck of a lot. The ease with which Houston and Crawford slip into their relationship is lovely. Lemmons stands back and allows it to happen, the sparse naturalism of the meet-cute and subsequent friendship-slash-romance showcasing an infectious spontaneity I was immediately drawn to.
The scene where Davis first watches Houston sing in front of an audience is also an absolute barnburner. The young woman is performing backup duty for her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), and is starting to grow quite the following. When the veteran musical artist spies Davis entering the club, she immediately feigns a scratchy throat and forces her daughter to open the show, and the younger Houston responds by tearing down the house with her vocal dominance.
It’s after that Merv Griffin performance that things begin their downward spiral. Not only for Houston, as the drug abuse starts and the relationship with Brown (Ashton Sanders) turns toxic, but also for this musical biography. It’s not that the performances are bad, but more that events become a series of time-jumping vignettes that does all the characters a huge disservice.
While individual moments shine (Houston’s Super Bowl appearance is a major wow, and the reenactment of the fabled “Impossible Medley” at the 1994 Video Music Awards is spectacular), nothing fits together with any clarity. Lemmons and McCarten speed through so many years, it all becomes a jumble. Houston’s money problems with her business manager father John (Clarke Peters)? Didn’t care. Fights with Bobby? They barely register. Journey to rehab? Comes and goes so fast that it’s like those scenes don’t even exist.
And yet, there are a handful of splendid creative choices sprinkled throughout the film. Key events from Houston’s life are presented as-is and without burdensome commentary. Weight is given to the singer’s relationship with Crawford. Cissy’s influence on her daughter’s career is never minimized. Houston’s otherworldly ability to make seemingly any song she touched uniquely her own is justifiably celebrated. Lemmons handles all of this with consummate gravitas, and I appreciate that she at least tries to avoid as many of the genre’s more recognizable clichés as best she can.
So it’s a shame I Wanna Dance with Somebody falls so frustratingly flat. Whitney Houston was a singular talent, and she deserves an equally unique motion picture chronicling her life. But this isn’t it, and that’s downright heartbreaking.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)