Kasi Lemmons’ estate-approved biopic offers a chance to mourn the legend, even if the film stumbles when she’s not on stage.
Look, I grew up a lonely gay kid. Locking myself in the dark and blasting Whitney Houston is what I do best. If Kasi Lemmons set out to make a divinely mixed greatest hits experience for Whitney fans to do so collectively, then she has certainly succeeded.
Yet there are times when Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody feels strained, as Lemmons and Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten try to say something about Whitney without resorting to (too much) high melodrama. It should be applauded for finally giving Whitney’s relationship with her ex-girlfriend and manager, Robyn Crawford, the respect it deserves. Her father receives similarly due criticism. Yet, in trying to do all that on top of contextualizing her marriage to Bobby Brown and the drug use that later killed her, all the while giving extended performances of pop ballads, the two-and-a-half-hour film becomes soggy with sentimentality. Were it not for the heart-bursting music of this heavenly talent, the film would be profanely boring.
Thankfully, Naomi Ackie does a worthy enough job playing Whitney Houston to mostly hold our attention. She can sustain Whitney’s breathy speaking voice and pointed diction. But, most importantly, she serves lip sync performances that would make a drag queen jealous. Lemmons has noticeably dedicated a lot of time to getting Whitney’s recordings to look like the sounds were coming from Ackie’s mouth. There are shining moments when her throat flexes or jaw flutters, and she seems possessed by “The Voice,” allowing us to revel in the range and colors of this once-in-a-generation vocal talent.
Lemmons and McCarten address the “Whitey” Houston era, in which Black listeners were vocally critical of Whitney’s mass appeal with white audiences, making way for a change in Whitney’s sound. Yet, for all her valiant efforts, Ackie cannot embody the Whitney from Newark, New Jersey that these listeners wanted to hear. Yes, Cissy Houston taught her child grace and poise under pressure, which Ackie’s British background profoundly understands. But fans of Whitney know that behind the velvet curtain was a sharp-shooting American woman who had a directness and grounded self-assurance formed by a community shaped by post-Reconstruction America, The Great Migration, and Jim Crow segregation.
If we compare Ackie’s performance as Whitney with Yaya DaCosta’s turn in Angela Basset’s Lifetime Original Movie, Whitney, the differences are apparent. DaCosta can draw on her New York roots to better approximate Whitney’s no-nonsense and joyful persona, her “realness,” whereas Ackie remains a little too “keep calm and carry on.”
This uneasy casting notwithstanding, the rest of the supporting ensemble is pitch-perfect. Clarke Peters’ portrayal of Whitney’s money-squandering father, John Huston, is stubborn and controlling. Stanley Tucci plays Whitney’s producer (and the film’s EP), Clive Davis, with a touching humanity. More than a one-dimensional mogul, I Wanna Dance with Somebody shows Davis as a generous mentor who has more in common with Whitney than meets the eye. It couldn’t have been easy for Tamara Tunie to step into the indomitable shoes of Cissy Houston, but Tunie masters the role with heart and humor, lighting up each scene she touches.
But it’s Nafessa Williams who turns in the most captivating performance of the film as Robyn. Where previous biopics and biodocs have only looked askance at Whitney and Robyn’s romance and enduring friendship, I Wanna Dance with Somebody allows us a glimpse into their intimacy. Lemmons celebrates the queer bond between the two women, even if it isn’t to last. Williams takes us on Robyn’s private journey of love and anguish, watching the woman she loves marry someone else and slowly fade away. She’s the prophet of doom, the tender voice of reason we connect with most as an audience since we know the light at the end of the tunnel is actually an oncoming train. We cry with Robyn and Cissy because we, too, are powerless to stop it from coming.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody is for those of us who remain. It may not tell us anything new or shatter any preconceptions, but it does hit the right notes in showing Whitney as a vocal artist. From the early scenes of her training at her mom’s church piano to the final moment as she scales an insurmountable medley, Kasi Lemmons wants us to remember Whitney as a craftsman, an artist with technique and a point of view. Even if the film doesn’t soar past being an average biopic, I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a chance to gather together and honor The Voice many of us will always love.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is currently playing in theaters.