Rob Reviews "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody"
In 2018, I raved about Whitney, the documentary about the life and times of the legendary Whitney Houston. Kevin McDonald’s take on both the triumphs and tribulations of her story accompanied by amazing footage and audio for a documentary that runs longer than average was one of my more favorite films that year, and when I heard that Kasi Lemmons would be taking on a narrative version of her story I was cautiously optimistic. With Anthony McCarten taking on the writing duties, my caution was heightened as he is the buy responsible for Bohemian Rhapsody, and I felt that film had some issues from a continuity and storytelling standpoint. It turns out that while I didn’t hate Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, I didn’t leave the theater ready to see it again either.
Naomi Ackie takes on the lead role and much like Rhapsody, the vocals outside of one song for her were taken from Whitney’s actual recordings. In some cases, they were her vocal track from live performances like the Concert for Nelson Mandela, and she owns them like she was singing them herself. I never felt that she was not performing her heart out even knowing going in that she would be lip synching to Houston (and let’s be honest, no one should be asked to match that level of talent). The detail in her costuming is also absolutely stunning in everything from her everyday wear to her most decadent and formal which I believe enhanced Ackie’s performance that much more.
There are a couple of other performances here that absolutely kept me engaged in Tamara Tunie (Law and Order: SVU) and the always amazing Stanley Tucci. Tunie takes on Whitney’s mother, Cissy, in a portrayal that shows both her domineering personality as a “song mom” and the mother that just wants her daughter to be happy. Tucci, who is always great, takes on the role of the pop star’s producer and mentor in Clive Davis head-on and unapologetically and as honestly as I believe he could have (I will get to that in a moment). On a more fun note, there could be some major bingo cards with marks on them here because not only do we have Law and Order represented but also The Wire with Clarke Peters playing Whitney’s father, John, it what could be the typecast “singer father” role, but I would need to check the paperwork on that. Ashton Sanders of Moonlight and Wu-Tang: An American Saga does a serviceable job as Bobby Brown, but I honestly feel it would be a hard-pressed quest to find someone who can truly play him on the level that would completely draw me in.
Where this film falls short for me is in the screenplay itself. My concerns with McCarten were about right on given the way Rhapsody played out with the same result here. For a film that is almost two-and-a-half hours long, there are portions where too much time is spent on some aspects of her life (extended sequences to reinforce her association with her best friend/manager Robyn Crawford could have been cut back a bit) with other parts being very glossed over (pretty much everything musically from 1987 through 1998 outside of the 1992 Super Bowl with I’m Your Baby Tonight not even really getting a mention). The dark times of her life could have also been given more time not as tabloid and movie fodder but more as a cautionary tale to help explain the spiral she wound up on in more than one chapter of her life.
In a year where Elvis took on a LOT of the publicity in the music biopic category and given how late in the year Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is being released, I feel like this film is going to be overshadowed by the others vying for the public’s entertainment dollar. By no means do I see this as Oscar bait for anyone involved (although there may be a couple of nods that come out of this), but by the same token I also think the release of this so late in the year may be calculated risk by the studio in the wrong direction. For those that are fans, it may benefit from a streaming viewing when it hits those platforms unless you are someone who REALLY feels the need for the theatrical experience here.