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‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ celebrates Whitney Houston’s legacy, loses grip on its center

The biopic displays the legendary singer’s triumphs, and struggles move through her life too quickly to grasp their importance

Sony Pictures

Go to any 80s-themed party, and I guarantee you will hear a combination of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “So Emotional.” Many love and goodbye-filled moments have been earmarked by her remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” If there’s a triumph in director Kasi Lemmons’s biopic of Houston’s life, it’s a grandiose and often emotional reminder of the singer’s impact on past and modern culture. With that, I Wanna Dance With Somebody moves at such a pace that it feels like you’re stopping by at every primary life marker before expediently moving to the next.

The film finds itself swept up in the cadence of biopics before it. Some revelations will make you wish there was more time spent exploring them. As major life events happen, they often feel like a slight stop on the journey. Others will have you dancing in your seat – especially long-time Whitney Houston fans. It’s where the film tries to touch so many aspects of Houston’s triumphs and struggles that I Wanna Dance With Somebody buckles under the enormity of her legacy.

When the film begins, we find Houston’s greatest (Naomi Ackie) beginning to expand on the grounds of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ. There, under the watchful eye of her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), she learned to “honor her commitment” to her vocal gifts. “Sing with your heart, your heart, and gut,” Cissy tells Whitney. It’s a principle that guides her throughout the powerful performances of her career – where Ackie accurately translates Houston’s mannerisms to backing tracks of the late singer. It’s the right call because how could anybody duplicate the vocal power of Houston? Ackie’s vocal capabilities are reserved for acapella scenes, but they are there to show how things come together.

At least in the earlier part of the film, writer Anthony McCarten provides the audience with a pillar of what Houston struggles with – wanting to be fully herself. Early in her life, she meets Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), who grows into her love interest and, eventually, creative manager. With the natural chemistry Ackie and Williams exhibit, it makes you want to root for this love to continue to blossom. However, her devotion to her religious upbringing and the almost homophobic views portrayed by Houston’s father, John (Clarke Peters), didn’t allow this to come to fruition. It’s a relationship that I Want To Dance With Somebody draws upon with a sense of sadness and consistency.

When Houston meets legendary record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), this is where the film starts to hit a formulaic stride. Chalk it up to McCarten’s work on 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Still, the film then starts to hit the whoos who of Whitney Houston's performances and career pillars (1987’s Whitney comes into particular focus). Lemmons devotes detail and attention to reenacting moments like Houston’s iconic 1991 Super Bowl rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” and the singer’s 1983 appearance on The Merv Griffin Show.

Much of Houston’s music is utilized to earmark some of her life's most important themes. At first, this works. However, when I Wanna Dance With Somebody tackles more of the reasons leading to the late singer’s tragic downfall – things far more into the line of more of a Behind The Music, “remember this song” template. It’s a shame because much of this film is built around a person with an undeniable gift caught in the gaze of expectation. The parental nickname given to Houston of “princess” did more to keep her caged into a specific image. Through Ackie’s portrayal, you feel the hurt emulating from her. There’s much to sift through – the accusations that Houston’s music wasn’t Black enough, her drug usage, a tumulous marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and conflicts with her father over her finances.

If that sounds like a lot, it is. One point in the film briefly touches on Houston having a miscarriage and quickly going to the next point. Another speaks to the duality of Bobby Brown proposing, but also confessing infidelity. (it comes off very comedic). Houston talks about the pressure of “being everything to everybody.” The story rarely allows the audience to reckon with how heavy that is.

Perhaps all the nuances are hard to capture because we want to know so many aspects of Houston’s life. We have many pieces to a puzzle that aren’t together long enough for us to fully appreciate the artwork formed by meticulously putting every jagged edge together. The performances add a battery to the source material, but everybody plays their role. John Houston and Bobby Brown are pillars of antagonism – both from a matriarchial and religious standpoint. Clive Davis is a mentor who often provides Houston sprints of advice and opportunity. Cissy is the pillar on which the late singer’s gifts have a base. In the end, it’s the person that many crowds came to see, and music lovers still elevate.

Houston’s legacy as “The Voice” will stand the test of time. At its best, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a celebration of a deserved amount of accomplishments. It’s going beyond the microphone where you’ll feel more could be given.