There were a lot of reasons to go into director Kasi Lemmons’s new film Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) with excitement and hope. The film offers some great performances and many of the best songs from Whitney’s catalog. However, the script by Anthony McCarten feels akin to a checklist of critical moments in her life, while never really coalescing into the movie’s thesis – which is that Whitney is the greatest voice of her generation. There will be some spoilers in this review, only because of the biopic nature of this film, and the expectation that most reading this will know key elements of the iconic pop star’s life.
The movie starts with Whitney (Naomi Ackie) speaking at the 1994 American Music Awards just before her iconic performance begins (which is where it’ll eventually end), before jumping to the ’80s and Whitney’s early singing days with her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) at church and as a backup singer. Whitney meets Robin Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who becomes a girlfriend, a best friend, and an assistant over the course of her life and career. This story never wants to commit to the idea and establishes the language this movie will use to tell most of the story, which is simply images of someone giving another character a look. We gather there is more to the relationship between Whitney and Robin through a series of longing looks, or awkward almost-conversations.
This style of storytelling will be used to discuss the rise and fall of Whitney’s relationship with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), her father’s (Clarke Peters) mismanaging of her funds, and the drug use that would ultimately be her downfall. Much of this story is told in the background, or in isolated close-ups with no context until much later on. If this were done with the goal being to center on talent, then it would make sense…but instead, this feels like a major misstep and avoidance of dealing with the darker parts of her life. The film is building up for its framing device of that 1994 performance, but it buries it under that build-up with a few random and out-of-context scenes. It doesn’t become clear that it is building to this until the audience finds itself there.
To compare this to McCarten’s Bohemian Rhapsody – a film I loved more than many – you’ll see a lot of similar problems. The key difference is that the moments when Queen is writing the songs really make the film pop, managing to make us forget about the vignette style of scene-to-scene moments. Whitney was incredibly talented, but she doesn’t write the songs – so instead of getting scenes where she is writing the song that the audience loves, there are scenes where she and Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) are listening to cassettes – and later, CDs – of songs she could choose to sing. Tucci and Ackie do what they can to make these moments enjoyable, but they just aren’t as compelling as watching a band work through the progression of the writing process. Thus, the key element that made Bohemian Rhapsody click for me is missing here.
Lemmons’s direction and Ackie’s performance truly pay off when we get to see the songs. Many of Whitney’s major performances and music videos are all represented in this film, and they are quite the production. It is impossible not to get sucked into these moments with the power of Whitney’s vocal range. I was left wondering if Ackie’s hand gestures were accurate to Whitney’s style as I didn’t recall that from my youth, but having gone to YouTube and watched several of Whitney’s actual performances, I can say Ackie definitely did her homework.
Unfortunately, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) – much like the film’s name – is just too long for no real payoff. There is a pair of biopics that I think many writers need to watch and take a lesson from Jobs (2013) and Steve Jobs (2015). Jobs is a prime example of the whole lifestyle of biographies, where we spend far too many moments with the iconic figure as though it will give a true insight into who they were and why we should know. In reality, most of the time we spend on this earth – no matter how wildly successful we become – will be mundane. Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs, on the other hand, chose to demonstrate who the man was through three major milestones of his life. The film is able to demonstrate the type of man he was, and how he affected those around him through three sequences. Apply that style to I Wanna Dance with Somebody, and the framing device it only slightly delivers. What if the entirety of the film was Whitney preparing for this big show? What was on the line? How is she handling everyone’s expectations of her? Couldn’t we glean who she was from this?
This version of her story extends to nearly three hours in length, and never really captures who she was or what she wanted, outside of a few throwaway lines. There is good to be had here and enough to make this film worth checking out – but also to leave us wanting a little more substance. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) earns the Decent Watch rating.