I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Review) – Houston, We Have A Problem

DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons

CAST: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters, Bria Danielle Singleton

RUNNING TIME: 146 mins

CERTIFICATE: 12A

BASICALLY…: Whitney Houston (Ackie) quickly rises to fame in the music world…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Screenwriter Anthony McCarten certainly has a real affinity for writing biopics, having penned the scripts for films about Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, and even two of the most recent Popes. However, when it comes to telling the life stories of some of the most famous musicians on the planet, McCarten seems to repeat the same mistake of playing more into the public’s pre-conceived image of said person rather than digging any deeper to find out who they really were.

Sadly, the same fate that struck Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody now strikes Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance With Somebody, which like the Queen biopic is watchable enough but also so safe that it struggles to find a compelling enough reason as to why this person is more unique than any other singer on the planet – which, by the laws of the biopic, is one of the bigger sins to commit.

Like nearly every other music biopic ever, the film covers the life and career of its central figure from start to tragic finish. Beginning as Houston (Naomi Ackie), the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) and manager John Houston (Clarke Peters), is scouted by top record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), she quickly rises to fame and fortune as she entertains the world with chart-topping hit after hit. Along the way, she runs into several hardships, including her tumultuous relationship with husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), complaints from Black spokespeople that her music is too white, drug addiction, and many others, all of which soon pile on top of one another and threaten the longevity of the international music sensation.

To say that I Wanna Dance With Somebody follows the same musician biopic formula as many others before it would be stating the obvious, as this particular formula has been around long before McCarten came along, and under the right people it has been known to work. However, there is something particularly soulless in how blatantly this movie is eagerly trying to ape the structure of McCarten’s own Bohemian Rhapsody, to where the film opens and climaxes with an iconic live performance that to this day most people associate with the central artist. It really does feel like the writer did a cut-and-paste job with a lot of his script, since it hits all the familiar beats from the early highs to the backstabbing lows of Houston’s career, zipping from one significant life moment to the next with hardly a moment to process any of it; even for a film that is two-and-a-half hours long (and unnecessarily so), a lot of this film feels oddly rushed, and leaves little room for any of these moments or the drama that unfolds within them to develop.

While director Kasi Lemmons does try to bring a sense of energy to a script that is manufactured to a tee, she isn’t able to find a compelling enough hook that engages the audience beyond the conventional structure. Not to bring this other McCarten-written movie up again, but while Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t a great overall film, it at least knew how to win over a crowd with a palpable drive and a showstopping lead performance; here, while Naomi Ackie delivers a committed lead performance, she is let down not just by a script that constantly gives her stale material to work with, but also direction that isn’t strong enough to show the audience how much of an impact that Whitney Houston made on the music scene. As you watch her life story play out, you never really feel the immense power of her voice as much as it wants you to, and because very little time is spent with Houston and other vital parts of her life – her relationship with creative director Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) is barely defined, and the film entirely skips over the alleged sexual abuse that provided a massive bombshell moment in Kevin Macdonald’s much more informative documentary Whitney – there isn’t much of an emotional connection to be made with the character, other than the fact that it’s a famous singer that everybody recognises.

It’s a film that is designed purely for hardcore Whitney Houston fans, giving them everything they’d expect to see in such a biopic, but without going too far outside of their comfort zone. They might enjoy this movie fine, but the rest of us will be left emotionally stranded, regardless of how one might feel about the singer. By playing it all so safe and undemanding (even the scenes of drug taking and domestic violence are so tame that you could practically show them on daytime television without any audience complaints), the life of this fascinating and hugely talented singer feels cheapened and capitalised rather than fully explored to their depths, leaving most audiences none the wiser about why this singer is considered so great other than her fantastic voice. It’s standard and harmless biopic fodder, and that’s exactly the problem.

SO, TO SUM UP…

I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a flat and often soulless Whitney Houston biopic that sees screenwriter Anthony McCarten stick far too closely to his own established Bohemian Rhapsody formula, only without the same level of crowd-pleasing energy from director Kasi Lemmons or a strong enough lead performance in Naomi Ackie to transcend its many conventional storytelling flaws.

I Wanna Dance With Somebody is now showing in cinemas nationwide – click here to find a screening near you!

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