Review: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody

British actor Naomi Ackie plays the powerhouse pop singer in this latest bid to cash in on her legacy, and does a formidable job in creating a distinctive on screen character, lip-syncing to beat the band, a talent that may be overlooked in the critique of her performance. Sure, she was saved the humiliation of having to recreate one of the most superhuman voices of the last three decades, but the movie is all about recreation, not exploration. Written by Anthony McCarten, who also penned Bohemian Rhapsody, the script is a master class in standard musical biopic, which perhaps makes even more sense in Houston’s case since her whole life fits the formula scarily to a T: preternaturally gifted offspring of a seasoned gospel/soul professional, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), is catapulted to fame by one of the most respected music moguls in the business, creates a whole new genre of R&B that easily crosses racial lines, wrestles with personal demons, and then dies young. Since we already have two different documentaries about Houston’s life that, together at least, seemed to cover every conceivable issue in her life, Wanna Dance is more than merely redundant. It’s the epitome of exploitation. The press kit I received at the screening was half filled with publicity materials for re-releases of her full catalogue.

Consequently, while much of the drama in Houston’s life is covered, the movie leaves a lot to the imagination, including her lifelong romantic relationship with road manager Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), the DV implications of her marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and her heavy drug use (which only figures in the end). The two themes that it does make an effort to sustain are her struggles in putting herself across as a Black cultural figure, as many Black people felt she too readily pandered to white audiences, and the bullying attitude of her manager-father, John (Clarke Peters), who may have been saddled with the bulk of the blame in the movie for Whitney’s self-esteem problems. Arista honcho Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci, whose portrayal amounts to the most entertaining aspect of the movie), of course, comes across as an avuncular saint, since Davis is one of the movie’s producers. He guides her career to the top and, even though he professes to “never get involved in my artists’ private lives,” tries to keep her on an even keel. The fact that he obviously failed, however, isn’t remarked upon in any way.

Musically, the film is marked by incidents that made Whitney a superstar, namely her singing of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl, and her mesmerizing medley at the 1994 American Music Awards. Though these two episodes—the latter is presented in detail not once, but twice during the movie—certainly qualify as star-powering, they may mean less to people like me who don’t put much store in either football or music awards ceremonies, and in the end what keeps I Wanna Dance With Somebody, and Ackie’s impressive impersonation even without the singing, from making any kind of interesting statement about Whitney Houston’s life is its overriding assumption of American cultural significance. Show biz is the national pastime. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

I Wanna Dance With Somebody home page in Japanese

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