The thing about biopics is that the creative team begins at a disadvantage – not only do they have to produce something that satisfies as entertainment, but their representation of the historical figure has to win out against the viewer’s own preconceived notions. We’ve already formed a pretty robust image of that person in our heads and, let’s be frank, we often don’t like to be challenged on what we feel to be true. It takes a spectacular effort to make us think otherwise.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody – directed by Harriet’s Kasi Lemmons written by Anthony McCarten (Darkest Hour) takes on the challenge with limited success. Across 146 minutes, the film does its best to cram in every detail on the pop singer and actor (played by Naomi Ackie) and her meteoric ascent from the gospel choir to the Superbowl. Such a tack normally spells only the most surface level engagement with the subject. Unfortunately for this biopic, it follows suit.
Viewers are swung from one critical moment to the next, with scenes feeling blurred or leaving unanswered questions. As the once-obscure vocalist inches towards the height of her fame, Houston’s relationship with assistant Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) feels simultaneously central and tacitly engaged with, mournful glances and circular inferences do much of the heavy lifting for what might have been a powerful and direct corrective. Cementing her legacy as ‘The Voice’ in the late 1980s and early ’90s, we’re introduced to the idea that Houston’s music wasn’t ‘Black enough’ but, again, there’s little in the way of understanding how that shaped her trajectory or understanding of herself.
You’d be forgiven for thinking its star was from New Jersey, not North London
A carousel of Whitney Houston’s best bits – getting discovered by magnanimous music mogul Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the ideation behind some of her biggest hits like ‘Saving All My Love For You’ and ‘How Will I Know’, giving her famous rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ while tracksuit-clad – is brought to life by Ackie, who manages to embody the star’s mannerisms without letting the deified legacy of Houston, or the lacking physical resemblance, swallow her up.
Such is the strength of her portrayal, you’d be forgiven for thinking the British actor was also raised in New Jersey rather than North London. Performances by Tucci and Tamara Tunie as Cissy Houston, Whitney’s somewhat overbearing mother, also lend the film much-needed gravitas.
Luxuriously budgeted, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a grandiose display, a lavish tribute to a global talent whose life was cut short. At times, I wished I could watch Ackie and Houston’s performances side-by-side, to compare and contrast the little details. That sensation gave way to a desire to watch one of the Whitney documentaries in circulation. Rather than triumphing over my conception of the ill-fated singer, Lemmons’ portrayal has only pushed me to consolidate it elsewhere.
In US theaters Dec 23 and UK cinemas Dec 26