Taking the stage in theaters at the tail end of 2022, the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a crowd-pleasing homage to the life, legacy, and work of an icon who sold over 200 million records worldwide.
One of the year’s last films is also one of the best as a shared theatrical experience.
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Developed with the full support of her family, while not leaning hard into the darker moments of her life and the singer’s tragic end, it certainly does not shy away from those moments that you might expect Hollywood to soften or ignore. This is not a tale of woe nor the portrait of a victim; this is far more of a celebration, and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a richer emotional and narrative tapestry than many might expect.
Naomi Ackie has the honor of embodying the singer and actress, delivering an instantly engaging performance that does justice to the complexity of Houston, affectionately referred to as “Nippy” by those closest to her. Portraying someone loved by so many is a risk for any actor, as is being the storyteller holding the reins. Still, Ackie tackles this with a connection, confidence, and ease that is entirely convincing. It feels like she was born to be Whitney.
Especially with this being something that her estate authorized, it would have been easy for “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” to speed past Houston’s early adulthood. A section of the audience may prefer that some skeletons, and people, should remain in closets. However, her relationship with Robyn Crawford, played by Nafessa Williams, is not a footnote here. Instead, director Kasi Lemmons and writer-producer Anthony McCarten use it as a bedrock moment for Houston’s relationships. They also don’t shy away from the resistance it received from even the artist’s family, particularly her father, John, played by Clarke Peters. Ackie and Williams’ chemistry is believable and natural, giving moments between them credible fire and tenderness where relevant. Similarly, because of that connection, it provides the crackling daddy-daughter relationship ultimatum scene a barbed intensity.
As mogul and music producer Clive Davis, also a producer on the film, Stanley Tucci is the Yoda to Houston’s Skywalker. His performance as the legendary mentor, always there as the calm in a storm, ready with sage advice, clarity, and honesty, brings warmth and a grounding presence to the sometimes chaotic world that occasionally overpowers his protégé. It’s an understated performance that offers some of the film’s most heartfelt human moments.
However, in a chain with so many strong links, it’s Ashton Sanders as Houston’s husband, Bobby Brown, who feels slightly out of sync, but that is no slight on his ability. While “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” doesn’t gloss over the turbulence of the relationship that consolidated him and Houston as tabloid fodder, it lacks a sharp edge, and the gravity of the reality feels diminished. For a film that shows the courage of its convictions so clearly in other areas, it leaves Sanders with a role with less meat on the bone than it should have.
While this is far from an out-and-out musical, the recreations of several of Houston’s landmark performances will be a crucial reason for some people turning out. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” serves up a feast of meticulously reconstructed turns ranging from her classic pop videos to showstopping live moments at Super Bowl XXV and the American Music Awards. Using Houston’s own voice and state-of-the-art technology centered on Ackie’s stellar performance, every single number hits hard and will get even the heaviest of feet tapping. Perhaps one of the most surprising things about “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is that more isn’t being made of the crafts on show during awards season. The work done by the VFX, production design, and sound editing teams is some of the year’s best. Even if you are not interested in Houston’s story, you can’t fail to be impressed by the masterful performance recreations.
Audiences know how this story ends; however, the tasteful way it plays out on screen will still leave audiences shaking their heads at the tragedy of it all. Understandably, creative choices are made that shift the focus of the finale away from the grim reality of Houston’s demise to a more celebratory tone that will leave the audience satisfied and brimming with emotion.
2022 marked the tenth anniversary of Houston’s sudden death, and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a fitting bookend to that. One thing is for sure, this celebration and commemoration of one of the bestselling music artists of all time deserves more fanfare than it is getting. Take advantage of the opportunity to see this in theaters rather than bemoan not having that option because you decided to wait until it hit streaming. A respectful, fitting, and far more honest account of what the artist nicknamed “The Voice” gave us, it’s a biopic that is up there with “Rocketman,” “Ray,” and “What’s Love Got to Do with It.”[B]