2022 has again been a year in which biopics rule the big screen. Think of “Elvis”, “Weird: The Al Yankovic Story”, and “Blonde”. While others did exceptionally well, some not so much. Having an incredibly well-known artist portrayed by a top-notch actor/actress isn’t always a reason for success.
However, that didn’t stop director Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”, “Talk to Me”) from making her “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”. While Naomi Ackie and her stunning supporting cast are doing everything they can to honour Whitney Houston in the best way possible, it takes ages for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” to find its voice.
It was clear from the beginning that Whitney Houston (Ackie) would have a life on stage. Her mother, Sissy (Tamara Tunie) is the leader of the church choir, which Whitney is part of. They both know that Whitney has an incredible talent, but Sissy also knows what an unfulfilled dream of becoming a global star can do to a person. While she wants to protect her daughter against that feeling, Whitney does what she has set her eyes on. Both on musical and personal levels.
After being discovered by Arista Records producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), she decides to sign with his music label. On top of that, Whitney also decides to take her relationship with Robyn (Nafessa Williams ) to the next level. That first decision certainly gets her parents’ approval. Her father, John (Clarke Peters), manages her money and Sissy teaches her daughter everything she knows about the showbiz world.
This results in a booming musical career (more singles, albums and tours) but in a disastrous personal life as the power of John keeps growing and the relationship between Whitney and Robyn starts crumbling down completely. Will Whitney Houston’s dream life become a nightmare?
Whether you’ve been following Whitney close by or not, you probably know a thing or two about the singer. We mainly know the classic songs, and therefore it’s great to see that Lemmons and writer Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Darkest Hour”) focus on the more personal side of Whitney.
You get to know the singer from a more personal perspective, and her less-known moments are being put under the spotlights. It’s a shame that the movie starts slow and that not every critical aspect is handled with enough care and intensity. It takes a long time before the film takes off but once it does, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” becomes a much more thrilling and emotional movie.
That flat start also has an impact on the acting performances. While Ackie (“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”, “The Corrupted”) certainly has the talent to captivate us for a runtime of 2h 26min, she doesn’t succeed in that fully. It feels that at the beginning, she’s pretty restrained because of the slowness of the storyline.
Still, once Houston’s career skyrockets and her personal life becomes much more turbulent, Ackie shines exceptionally brightly. Her emotional performance will undoubtedly have you in tears, and the fantastic performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl will give you goosebumps. Ackie already has similar features to Whitney Houston, and kudos to the hair and make-up team for highlighting those and turning Ackie into the famous singer flawlessly.
Tucci (“Jolt”, “Supernova”) is one of the actors who’s mainly cast in a supporting role but who rightfully so overclasses the lead. This time is no different. His performance outshines Ackie’s whenever they share the screen. His performance is on-point as he gives Clive so much personality. From being a talented manager to the more concerned friend (despite not interfering with his client’s lives) and from being an incredibly humorous person to a man who sadly has to keep some secrets from the outside world.
Both Tunie (“Flight”, “The Devil’s Advocate”) and Peters (“Da 5 Bloods”, ”Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) are powerful as Whitney’s repressive, controlling and deep down also loving parents. Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”, ”The Retrieval”) puts on a solid performance as Bobby Brown, but it’s such a shame that the film doesn’t focus a lot on the turbulent relationship between Whitney and Bobby.
While the events are rough to watch, they were still a big and important part of Witney’s life, so it would have been better if that relationship and the chemistry between Ackie and Sanders had been explored more. Rounding out this strong cast is Williams (“A Holiday Chance”, “Black and Blue”), who brings on a fun, emotional and vibrant performance to this movie as Robyn.
While many questions remain unanswered, some even untouched, the biggest one is probably, “couldn’t this movie have a better storyline than the current one?”. Whitney Houston’s life has been extremely intriguing, so why isn’t this movie? The strong performances, the beautiful job by the hair and make-up teams, and the stunning cinematography could have easily carried a much more in-depth story.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is released in U.K. cinemas on the 26th of December.
26th December 2022
THE QUICK SELL
A joyous, emotional, heartbreaking celebration of the life and music of Whitney Houston, one of the greatest female R&B pop vocalists of all time, tracking her journey from obscurity to musical superstardom.