I Wanna Dance With Somebody review – smooth Whitney Houston biopic

Naomi Ackie is excellent in the title role and the film delivers all the singer’s big hits, but it swerves the difficult questions

Whitney Houston has already been the subject of two startling and effectively competing documentaries: Nick Broomfield’s Whitney: Can I Be Me? from 2017 and Kevin Macdonald’s Whitney, which was released a year later. Each in its own way was hamstrung by legal issues and family pressure, although Broomfield’s was perhaps the more judicious and insightful. Now here is a music biopic on very traditional lines from screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Kasi Lemmons: a smoothly watchable and well performed piece of work. It is almost a 144-minute narrative montage, and very avoidant on key issues – seemingly deferring to everyone who is still alive and suing.

British actor Naomi Ackie is very strong in the role of Houston (though with Whitney’s original singing voice dubbed). Houston was, of course, the glorious pop star who achieved mainstream white-crossover success but was crushed by sellout accusations, overwork, drug addiction, family strife and her volatile relationship with her notorious husband, Bobby Brown, and was tragically denied feelings for her best friend and assistant Robyn Crawford. She was found dead in the bathtub of her LA hotel room in 2012 at just 48 with evidence of cocaine use. Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters give powerhouse performances as Whitney’s gospel-singer mom Cissy and overbearing dad John; Nafessa Williams is very plausible as Whitney’s loyal but finally heartbreakingly slighted lost love Crawford, and Stanley Tucci scene-stealingly plays avuncular record boss Clive Davis.

The movie skates over the still fraught subject of who was supplying Houston with drugs and who therefore effectively enabled her sad death, and it simply does not mention that Houston’s grownup daughter herself died just three years later in a grimly similar way. Documentaries have tiptoed around the allegations that family members had to source drugs on tour; this film conveniently invents a shifty-looking white guy who asks Houston for her autograph and then cash and drugs are surreptitiously exchanged under cover of Houston getting pen and paper from her bag. Nor does this film mention the theory from Macdonald’s documentary that Houston was sexually abused as a child by a cousin.

Stanley Tucci as record boss Clive Davis, with Naomi Ackie as Whitney.
‘Scene-stealing’ Stanley Tucci as record boss Clive Davis, with Naomi Ackie as Whitney. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

It does however deliver the big scenes and big moments, especially her amazing performance of the national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. But a boilerplate music biopic like this usually runs in four stages: tough beginnings, success, crisis and redemptive comeback. Whitney’s life can’t give us the last of these and this film averts its gaze from the grim final reality of that hotel room in 2012, preferring to circle back in flashback to the triumph of Whitney’s performance at the 1994 American Music Awards, in which she sang her famous medley of I Loves You Porgy, And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going and I Have Nothing.

The ultimate questions are not really answered: was Whitney a gay woman whose problems stemmed from being imprisoned in the closet? Was she a gospel/R&B genius whose agonies arose from being a pop princess for white audiences? Or was it simply that she had to use drugs to relieve the stress of a touring schedule she was forced into by her big-spending family retinue? It could be any of these, and the film touches gingerly on each possibility. But it’s a muscular, heartfelt performance from Ackie.

• I Wanna Dance With Somebody is released on 23 December in the US and 26 December in the UK and Australia.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
I Wanna Dance With Somebody review – doggedly formulaic Whitney Houston biopic
The singer’s voice is mostly lip-synced, by British actor Naomi Ackie, but this by-numbers film falls well short of capturing Houston’s mega-watt appeal

Wendy Ide

31, Dec, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
The United States vs Billie Holiday review – Lee Daniels' misguided biopic | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
Lee Daniels’ bizarre decision to root this account of the singer’s late years in supposition about her romance with a federal agent cheapens her courage

Peter Bradshaw

19, Feb, 2021 @5:00 PM

Article image
Respect review – one-note Aretha Franklin chronicle follows every biopic beat
Jennifer Hudson plays the soul legend, but this biopic reduces the complexity of her upbringing and artistry to corny life lessons

Peter Bradshaw

09, Sep, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Beef broth and body shaming: the punk drama about why Empress Elisabeth was the Meghan Markle of her time
Director Marie Kreutzer talks about her latest film, which aims to portray a complex female character – whose story resonates with modern pressures on royal women under the glare of media scrutiny

Cath Clarke

01, Dec, 2022 @3:00 PM

Article image
Emily review – love, passion and sex in impressive Brontë biopic
Director Frances O’Connor shows author’s creative path to writing Wuthering Heights through the two great loves of her life

Peter Bradshaw

12, Oct, 2022 @12:26 PM

Article image
Elvis review – Baz Luhrmann’s squeaky-clean King is shaking no one up
Incurious yet frantic, Luhrmann’s spangly epic is off-key – and Austin Butler flounders in those blue suede shoes

Peter Bradshaw

22, Jun, 2022 @8:56 AM

Article image
Whitney Houston: 'no holds barred' biopic in the works from Clive Davis
I Wanna Dance with Somebody will be written by the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Two Popes and involve input from the singer’s estate

Benjamin Lee

22, Apr, 2020 @8:40 PM

Article image
Enys Men review – a supremely disquieting study of solitude
Bait director Mark Jenkin delivers another eerie prose-poem of a film, about an isolated woman lost inside her own mind

Peter Bradshaw

20, May, 2022 @2:15 PM

Article image
Subject review – exploitation, trauma and the ethics of documentary-making
The subjects of The Staircase, Hoop Dreams, Capturing the Friedmans and others contribute to this thoughtful film about the duty of care film-makers owe those whose stories they tell

Cath Clarke

28, Feb, 2023 @9:00 AM

Article image
What links Whitney Houston to Raiders of the Lost Ark – and Stanley Tucci’s recipes?
From a biopic of the singer to the adventures of the whip-cracking archaeologist, all via a galaxy far, far away

Larry Ryan

24, Dec, 2022 @1:00 PM