Watchable for the first hour but quickly becomes directionless in the second half and perhaps this story should have been saved for a writer that is saving all their love for Whitney.
WRITTEN BY ANDREW KORPAN / DECEMBER 22, 2022
In what’s a rare case of a movie trailer not lying, the Whitney Houston biopic — which confusingly rebranded at the 11th hour by adding the “I Will Always Love You” singers’ name before the original title — was indeed written by Bohemian Rhapsody scribe Anthony McCarten. That’s all you need to know before heading into the new 146-minute-long addition to the musical biopic genre (the only genre that rivals the comic book genre with the sheer number of entries released every year). Despite being someone who’s relatively intrigued by a musical biopic whether I know the artist or not, I Wanna Dance with Somebody’s biggest flaw is that it’s simply too conventional and fails to go against the grain in any way that stands out save for it being the definitive biopic for Houston.
The film begins in 1994 when Whitney (Naomi Ackie) is preparing to perform her “Love Medley” and introduces it to the audience. Before we hear the opening notes, however, we are transported back to New Jersey a decade earlier where Whitney is learning to sing under her mother's (Tamara Tunie) tutelage. Her mother is a tough cookie and wants her daughter to honor her commitment to singing. It’s abundantly clear from the start that Whitney is a revolutionary voice. But you can have all the talent in the world without learning how to control it (looking at you, Zach Wilson).
Soon after — we’re given very few definitive time frames in this film — Whitney meets someone who’s going to have a big role in her future: Robyn (Nafessa Williams). The two hit it off immediately and quickly move in together. All of this occurs before a performance that changed Whitney’s life forever. She performs in front of Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the esteemed record producer. She’s quickly given a record deal and the rise and fall of Whitney Houston are documented — drugs and all.
Now, before getting into the film, this is what I believe: there is care in this project. Heck, the real Clive Davis served as a producer (along with a long list of others), and I do believe that director Kasi Lemmons, a renowned director in her own right, had good intentions. But why do any sort of biographical genre when you don’t allow yourself to break through the conventions of the genre? I didn’t like Elvis, but while its story didn’t do anything you haven’t seen in the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, Baz Luhrmann’s fingerprints are all over the film. The film has a distinct aesthetic and pace that only Luhrmann can nail. So even if I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of it, I can applaud it and appreciate its creativity in a genre that seems so hellbent on remaining the same; something that Houston wouldn’t stand for with her music.
Much of the blame likely rests on the shoulders of McCarten, who you’d figure would have gotten better with every biopic he’s done. There’s just no method to his madness or even method, really. Take the first act, for example. Whitney goes from learning to sing, to meeting her future BFF Robyn, to performing in front of Davis, to signing the record deal within a matter of minutes. After that, a lot just happens. We see the standard beats of a musical biopic: Whitney creates mega-hits, she meets her husband Bobby Brown (Asthon Sanders), the two have a kid, Whitney’s father takes advantage of her (if it’s not going to be her manager, the father is always the next best thing) and she has a drug problem.
If those events happened in real life, I’m not suggesting that simply fabricating other ones is necessary (as often as that happens). It’s just that, in my own estimation, if every musical biopic hits the same beats, is it necessary to make one for every artist? Simply changing the key to a slightly higher note with every music biopic while remaining in the same song makes it really hard to stand out. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, for as awful as it is, was at least self-aware enough to recognize this and try to switch it up; even if that meant simply doing the exact opposite of what’s expected.
I also don’t want to completely discount the panache of the film. Oscar-winning cinematographer Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) shot this film to mixed results. Some of the concert sequences are breathtaking — though who knows how much the visual effects team carried these scenes — while others are head aching. There’s a lot of handheld camera movement and zooms in and out of the faces of whoever is on screen. It creates a reality TV-like effect that rarely works in this medium. And while I Wanna Dance with Somebody already enlisted genre vet McCarten, I could’ve sworn up until looking it up that this film also nabbed Bohemian Rhapsody’s editor. It’s never quite as egregious as that one scene in Bohemian Rhapsody, but there are some sequences early on that are so choppily edited that it would make the crew on Taken 3 proud between that and the shakiness of the camera.
Oddly enough, I Wanna Dance with Somebody does veer away from the genre norm in one key avenue: its marketability. Say what you want about any biopic, but Walk the Line had Joaquin Phoenix, Bohemian Rhapsody; Rami Malek, Rocketman; Taron Egerton, hell, even Respect had Jennifer Hudson. Maybe it works in its favor that I Wanna Dance with Somebody has Ackie, who’s phenomenal in the role (albeit coming from someone with very little knowledge of the real-life subject). We’ve seen that you can be a boring music biopic but make money with your marketable star. It’s unfortunate because Ackie is really good in this role. You see a full transformation throughout the film — Ackie plays Whitney from her teenage years into her final days — and you see it both physically and in her mannerisms. And my lord, her stage presence will make you believe that she’s the real deal. I can’t tell if she sang the songs or not but either way, she nailed it.
Speaking of the performances, unlike many other musical biopics, I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn’t have a marquee performance to end the film on. Sure, we return to the medley, but I’m sure that this is a big step backward for McCarten whose last film in the genre changed the game with its recreation of Live Aid. There are a number of concert scenes — most in the second half — but they mostly remain ambiguous due to their lack of timestamps. 1994, 2009, 2012 and whatever year Whitney performed at the Super Bowl are the only dates that come to mind with some sort of significance. Maybe it's smarter to take the Bohemian Rhapsody approach and treat performances as music videos/segues into the next era, but it does make it a tad confusing for those who are not familiar with Whitney’s last days when it jumps from 2012 back to 1994 to pay off that opening scene and end the film on the (extremely long) medley. If not for cuts to certain members of the audience that make it clear that we went back in time, I would still be confused why the film decided to end on that performance. Again, it’s hard to top Live Aid, but were there really no other performances to pull from?
The rest of the supporting cast is so uneven because of how frequently they hit and exit the stage. Tucci has the most substantial role as Davis and does his best with a character who looks part-Bob Odenkirk, part-Paolo Gucci. Admittedly, it’s quite refreshing to see a musical biopic without the manager/record producer being a complete piece of shit, though who knows how much of that is due to Davis serving as a producer on the project. The two do bear an uncanny resemblance and hats off to the casting department of Kim Coleman, Lisa Lobel and Angel Peri.
Even more sporadic are appearances from Peters and Tunie as Whitney’s parents. Her father does have a larger role, but her mother is M.I.A. for the majority of the last two acts of the film. It appears that after the two divorce — which is hardly mentioned in the film — Whitney’s mother had no real role in her life. It’s abundantly clear that McCarten may have realized that due to her lack of screentime, it’s almost implied that Whitney’s mother just died and in turn, the film shoehorns her back into scenes throughout the last two acts to remind us that she does indeed have a pulse. Her father screwed her over despite how many times he claimed he had it under control, but this exhausted character arc of the manager who goes on a power trip is hard to care about, much less pay attention to when the character is hardly on-screen. Likewise, Williams is also absent for much of the film and only returns to be shut out by Whitney and her husband.
In Whitney’s performance that catches Davis’ eye early in the film, she sings about growing out of the shadows cast upon her (likely those cast by her mother). However, her biopic, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, will have a hard time doing that in comparison to some of the other entries in the musical biopic genre. It’s watchable for the first hour but quickly becomes directionless in the second half and perhaps this story should have been saved for a writer that is saving all their love for Whitney.