Film Review: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Year: 2022

Runtime: 146 minutes

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Writers: Anthony McCarten

Starring: Naomi Ackie, Ashton Sanders, Stanley Tucci, Clarke Peters, Nafessa Williams, Tamara Tunie

By Tom Moore

Director Kasi Lemmons follows up her 2019 biopic “Harriet” with a film focusing on the legacy of another historic black figure, Whitney Houston. However, the film, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” is more of a standard collection of Houston’s greatest and not so greatest hits rather than a meaningful look into the iconic singer’s life.

As the film delves into the highs and lows of Whitney Houston’s (Naomi Ackie) personal life and career, it offers plenty of nostalgia that fans will undoubtedly enjoy. Every time an iconic song of Houston’s is brought up, it’s hard not to get excited to hear it and even see the origins of it. Plus, Lemmons’ recreation of some of Houston’s most memorable performances and music videos really makes you see the film as a trip down memory lane. The film also captures the power and presence that Houston had as a performer and it makes for some great music sequences that are even more epic on the big screen.  Also, Ackie’s performance throughout definitely delivers that on-stage energy that Houston was known for as well as her passion and love of music.

Unfortunately, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t emphasize the more meaningful parts of Houston’s story. When looking back through Houston’s career and life in the film, it features no shortage of relevant talking points and food for thought. From her tumultuous personal relationships with her father (Clarke Peters) and husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) to the growing pressure and criticism she faced in the public eye, there’s a lot to reflect on with Houston’s story. There’s even a case to be made that her story can be seen as a cautionary tale of identity with how she’s forced to end her relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) and dealt personal blows from public criticism.

However, the film simply jumps between the most relevant points of Houston’s career rather than deeply delve into impactful moments. It rarely takes the time or care to really highlight a meaningful moment for Houston to have viewers connect with and reflect on it. For instance, the film touches on how Houston faced criticism for her music sounding “too white” leading her to be targeted with racist slurs at events. But it doesn’t delve deep enough into this moment for it to make a real impact and quickly shifts away from it after a few scenes. This is a common recurrence throughout the film, and it makes the depictions of certain relationships, characters, and situations immensely hollow and kind of shallow.

Ackie’s performance is definitely one of the film’s greatest strengths with the level of charm, screen presence, and human struggle she shows as Houston throughout.  It’s definitely a breakout performance for her and could easily win over any audience. She’s easily as strong in the moments that show Houston’s struggles with drug use and her dream becoming a painful nightmare. Sadly though, the film’s lack of depth diminishes Ackie’s performance when it tries to touch on Houston’s tougher moments. The initial chemistry between her and Williams is strong though and Houston and Robyn’s relationship can be a nice thread throughout the film.

However, the other performances and depictions mostly just fit into tropey roles. Although the film makes it seem like Houston has this meaningful relationship with her father, it’s rarely shown in any scenes, and he’s mostly shown to be a generic money-grubbing manager as well as one of her harshest critics. Brown simply acts as a live-action cartoon character who you can never takes seriously and has no depth so all his interactions with Houston feels like manufactured drama.

Overall, it’s just a shame that Houston’s story lacks any real personal depth to it and that the only times you feel connected to seeing it on-screen is when there’s a bit of nostalgia to clamor onto. It doesn’t feel like it’s shedding much new light on her story and the film comes off like a highlight reel that fans can get the same effect of with a couple YouTube searches, Wikipedia skims, and “Behind the Music” documentaries. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” feels like a missed opportunity because of its narrative shortcomings and isn’t effective in making you feel closer to Houston as a person, rather just her as a performer.

Although Lemmons does a great job recreating Houston’s most memorable performances and there are certain elements, mainly Ackie’s performance, that elevate the experience, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is sadly a hollow watch. There’s almost nothing to connect with past some face-value nostalgia and Houston’s more personally meaningful story moments aren’t given the spotlight and time they deserve.

2-stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s