We’re all familiar with the emotional response tied to hearing a legendary song for the first time. A track with a catchy melody, hook, or rhythm that stays with an individual through to their last breath. I could think of at least five or six Beatles songs, and at least one Tim McGraw chart-topper to fulfill that criterion after only the first chorus. Eighties pop may also fall in that category, though only in smaller amounts. And yes, that may also include artists you or I may know by radio osmosis. Whitney Houston’s one of them for me, having heard her biggest hits hundreds of times in hundreds of places.
I have no doubt she is a legend, her nickname “The Voice” is quite apt to match her enunciation, tone, range, and power behind a microphone. A decade now passed since her tragic death; her story has been granted big screen dues. Regrettably, it’s an outright mess of ideas that only briefly holds together as a dense musical drama. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody tries for Dreamgirls territory, only to upchuck its potential by devolving into a mixtape of random footage and missed opportunities.
At first, director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet) and writer Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody) apply their experience with musical material to compelling use, highlighting Houston’s (Naomi Ackie) early rise from singing in church to catching the eye of Arista Records honcho Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) in her mom Cissy’s (Tamara Tunie) nightclub set. To a string of number-ones, hit films, and record-breaking tours. An over-tested friendship with eventual creative director Robin (Nafessa Williams), a heavily flawed romance with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), financial mismanagement on dad John’s (Clarke Peters) behalf, and devastating drug addiction. The world might’ve seen her as a princess, but Whitney, as herself, struggled to keep her identity and composure above water.
And that may be the issue Lemmons and McCarten are unable to conquer. It’s a tapestry of complicated human events making up an artist’s personal arc. And it would be compelling to witness if it weren’t so bizarre at times, and poorly organized everywhere else. Scenes connect to each other decently at first, only to have the passage of time melt upon itself by how fast we transition to a different career hallmark, often two or three in the same scene. Rarely anything has the chance to settle into frame, particularly in the later half where Houston’s resolve spirals with her savings drained. Then, it’s a steeply sliding scale, the final years of the singer’s life a painfully rushed afterthought devoid of meaning or circumstance.
Lemmons’ means of staging sequences, dramatic or directly musical is just as much at fault. Far from any elegant storytelling approach, with each musical interlude, Dance becomes less of a film and more of a visual collage. A mixtape of different mediums lacking cohesion, even archive footage, and conversational handheld camera work stick out with indistinct separation. Though not as badly as otherwise compassionate performances displaying Ackie’s natural stage presence, while over-relying on phony crowd shots. They still come off very out of place, halting the narrative cadence in its tracks, masking avoidable splotches of uncertainty in McCarten’s script. Namely with what and what not to address.
The film’s approach to tragedy grows to something undeserving of Houston’s legacy. While it speaks much to her drug-related downturn, it says the bare minimum to her growing bond with daughter Bobbi Kristina, the recovery leading to her 2009 comeback, and her final demise. Any moment that’s meant to be a depressing low point is either hastily followed by or replaced with a chance to celebrate the highs. The ending suffers from this method, using one last performance piece as a desperate copout from solidifying impact out of initial sadness.
An open opportunity to affirm legacy is snuffed by personal faults that couldn’t be explained timelier. Luckily, that substantial wobble doesn’t keep Ackie down for long. Her performance personifies Whitney to a T, committing voice, mind, and soul to a most accurate expression of the singer’s benchmarks. Ackie truly owns this film from start to finish, her star allure unable to turn away from. Tucci, meanwhile, does similar work to taking on Davis, credited as an executive producer. He does come off a bit neutral, attempting to meddle except, when necessary, though it is still a welcome presence by the actor, squeaking out nuggets of sly business sense. Tunie does offer a few surprises here and there, invoking unexpected comic timing and moral clarity to offer the film’s biggest laughs. Sanders makes for an unconvincing Bobby, only furthering his history as a clown of the music world. And I do wish there’d been more of Williams’ Robin to go around, her entire side of Whitney’s venture lessened in prominence.
Ms. Houston’s saga as an entertainer, both on and off stage, is very ripe for screen retelling. And in Lemmons’ hands, we gain knowledge on the identity crisis clouding her mind, with only the music or the self-medicating to at least falsify any personal satisfaction. But it’s never enough to effectively understand her mindset or her musical prowess, the two ideas forced to mesh into a densely packed, though still incomplete feature.
Much like her life, I Wanna Dance with Somebody explores what made her a star, and what incited her decline, albeit imperfectly. As a biopic, it overstays its welcome with all its unnecessary deviations. As the definitive retelling of a troubled hitmaker, it deserves better. Perhaps expanded into a long-form miniseries, with every figure and moment granted ample breathing room. We might always love Whitney as an artist, and this venture may please most fans. For someone who just passively knows her work, it was a captive experience that satisfied the ears more than the eyes. (C+; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody opens in wide release December 23 (previews begin 2 PM December 22); rated PG-13 for strong drug content, some strong language; smoking, and suggestive reference; 146 minutes.