I’m not against the apropos biopic that looks to detail the life of an artist from beginning to end, serving up scenes as vignettes through a structured narrative that takes you from point A to point B. I say this because many of these biopics are packaged with excellent performances. Once you see what a performer can deliver, the simplicity of a biopic’s narrative writing can remain secondary as the lead shines and steals our hearts at center stage. Unfortunately, I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the new Whitney Houston biopic, fails to capture that spark, getting lost trying to deliver all the significant moments in Houston’s life and leaving little for lead actress Naomi Ackie to work with on numerous occasions. These moments feel artificial and not as consequential as it progresses, but there’s a concerted effort to deliver powerful performances, but with minimal depth to give them purpose; it’s just there trying to live in the moment without anything defining them.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody opens at the 1994 American Music Awards (AMAs), a triumphant moment in Whitney Houston’s life where the name The Voice become marked in stone. Musicians line up in the back, readying their instruments as Whitney Houston gets set to walk out and perform a melody of songs, which sequentially made for an auspiciously unique orchestration. At first, you feel like we’re getting this niche narrative that ends here; a moment where we can continue to celebrate instead of remembering her tragic downfall. The film walks a thin line, trying not to desensitize character for the sake of drama, and for better, it allows it to radiate naturally within the story. It’s this celebration of a career, except as it peters out in the last hour, that notion of celebration is put on the back burner until the final moments, where the film tries to ceremoniously end with the ‘94 AMA performance, despite being forgotten swiftly.
What starts upbeat and rich with blissful connectivity eventually gets circumvented into an onslaught of remedial scenes that don’t amount to anything more than a slideshow of a life. It’s a promising start; we get introduced to Whitney Houston and Robyn Crawford, and a bond that blossomed from a relationship to a working relationship; however, that’s another aspect that gets pushed to the side. I assumed we were to see the complexities between Whitney Houston’s and Robyn Crawford’s (her creative partner) relationship as it divulged into this phenomenal decade of music and performances. Unfortunately, it starts going downhill when Whitney Houston gets her deal with ARISTA, and everything becomes minuet in retrospect. Whether it’s the 1994 AMAs performance or her momentous shift into linear R&B/Soul/Gospel on her third album, I’m Your Baby Tonight, plus subsequent soundtrack albums. Every idea for a song, every inclination of something grand, nothing is getting implemented to make it feel like something worth caring for, like their incorporation of the production of The Bodyguard. All these scenes feel like filler for what audiences possibly want as you proceed through an overly produced, made-for-tv spectacle.
As one continues to see her world trickle down the drain – from familial and financial abuse to varying addictions before and during her toxic and tumultuous relationship with Bobby Brown of New Edition fame – there isn’t much to care about as it poorly juggles tone. Similarly, the musical performances are chosen oddly, never seeming to know what would be potent or missing the mark when it’s something grand, like the performance of I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which comes from the ARISTA’s 15th Anniversary concert. The arrangement loses touch with what made it remarkable. It isn’t as funky, and the energy feels like it’s being sucked out of the room. With a smaller stage, as well, it’s trying to become more intimate with her proximity to the band. Fortunately, for the curious, many of the musical performances land, especially early on, where we see a young Whitney Houston grow into her own, performing alongside her mother and on television.
Though Naomi Ackie adds a lot, all but Clive Davis don’t feel entirely real, not even Ashton Saunders’ performance as Bobby Brown, who’s personifying an emotionally manipulative abuser who’s constantly enabling and gaslighting Whitney Houston. The way it’s expressed on screen, fans might think: “they could have made Bobby so much worse.” I Wanna Dance With Somebody makes sure not to remind us of that time Houston did the reality show with Bobby Brown and the 2003 battery charge. That’s a testament to the film’s goal to be more of a celebration instead of telling us this happened and that happened, but there isn’t much merit when it stumbles back into being that kind of biopic. The bright sides arrive from the actors who give it their all, especially Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis. He delivers a refined and subtle performance that boasts and beautifully contrasts Ackie’s energetic charisma.
Surprisingly, I Wanna Dance With Somebody takes confusing shortcuts that stumble its narrative structure – one example: the characters don’t get the proper makeup to distinguish age. There are varying moments where I didn’t know if the film kept jumping back and forth between the year 1992 and close to the time of her death. During a heightened moment when Whitney Houston confronts her father, John Houston, played by Clarke Peters, about being in debt due to his carelessness, a gentleman sitting with him remarks about her performance in Cinderella. I didn’t know we were already here. The last thing I remembered was a botched edit of the pool scene from The Bodyguard, which expresses to us that Whitney Houston had a miscarriage, Clive Davis playing the Dolly Parton rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” and more drug use. It barely explains the addiction to drugs, coming out of nowhere, like many scenes in the film. It’s a cluster; the highs are high, the lows are low, and there are a lot of lows.
There were some things to enjoy and indulge in with I Wanna Dance With Somebody, especially if you’re a fan of Whitney Houston, as it tries to deliver the best it can on a performance level. Sans, the title performance, the music video recreations, and more get brought to life with visual vigor, but it gets surrounded by varying scenes that have less impact than expected. There’s a moment where Bobby Brown proposes to Whitney Houston, then drops a bomb about his ex-girlfriend being pregnant with his kid. Sitting there watching, I felt nothing as it came across as superficial and nonconsequential to the film’s goal, as that scene doesn’t build on any celebration of her life and music. It’s a cluster; the high points are high, the low points are low, and there are a lot of lows. Unfortunately, the great moments aren’t enough to recommend this film unless curiosity sparks passing it on a streaming platform or VOD.