Whitney Houston: Wanna Dance with Somebody | Review

★★

Try not to blink when watching Kasi Lemmons’ spiritual sequel to Bohemian Rhapsody. You’ll miss half a dozen edits and about three months in narrative. Such is the rapid, montage heavy pace of I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the long time coming Whitney Houston story. If Rhapsody was the Wikipedia scribed life and times of Freddie Mercury, Lemmons’ film is the picture pages wedged in the middle of Houston’s authorised biography. No depth, no grit, no analysis. Pretty and competent. Pretty boring too.

To her credit, Naomi Ackie makes a fair stab at a challenging lead role. Much as was with Ana de Armas’ take on Marilyn Monroe, Ackie never quite captures the aura and sparkle that made the so-called ‘Voice’ the star but does well to mine the emotional underbelly of a light that burnt too bright, too soon. If, early on, her work feels rote, it is as things begin to slow in the film’s final third that Ackie finds more meat to chew. With an almost grotesquely scatological interest, Anthony McCarten’s script here lays out Houston’s decline and fall. Lemmons’ lens moves brutally close and the full affect of addiction is brought into sharp relief. What’s lacking is even the sense of judiciary intent. A pointing finger and inquisitive eye

A notable refusal to offend those who remain pervades the darker recesses here. Houston’s father (ably played by Da 5 Bloods’ Clarke Peters), who passed twenty years since, shoulders much of the blame for the star’s financial woes but when it comes to the supply of drugs, suggestion of familial involvement is conspicuously absent. Even in her final confrontation with notorious husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), Whitney offers absolution. The drugs, she states, predated him and were far from his doing. Moreover, the tempestuous side to their relationship is only fleetingly explored, his 2003 arrest for spousal battery entirely overlooked. There’s simply too much to say and so the film doesn’t.

It is with a similar lack of curiosity that the film skirts through the knotty issues of Whitney’s heart-achingly stolen relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams – great), accusations of whitewashing her sound and the increasingly erratic behaviour that dogged her final decade. Rather than tackling such concerns head on, Lemmons’ film is laden with po-faced foreboding and increasingly farcical transitions. McCarten’s script has the feel of an eight hour tome hacked into a long but more marketable 146 minutes. Watch for the scene in which Whitney jokes: ‘It ain’t like we getting married’ in the scene before Bobby proposes, having only been introduced two scenes prior. Exquisite performances by Tamara Tunie and Stanley Tucci – as Whitney’s mother and mentor respectively – are, meanwhile, hampered by a script that only very occasionally remembers to include them.

Lemmons finds firmer ground in conquering Whitney’s more jubilant career-highlights. Those fist pumping, trailer friendly peaks. The music video recreations, the seven number ones and Oprah come back appearance. Best – certainly the most triumphant – of these is Whitney’s ‘91 Super Bowl performance. It’s the film’s Live Aid moment and all involved know it. The crowds whoop and Ackie gleams. A legend.

Only, therein lies the problem. In playing to the party line, in casting Ackie as Whitney the icon, I Wanna Dance with Somebody boxes Houston into the role that was her downfall. There is little here to reveal any more of the real Whitney than a cursory Google might and the result is perfunctory. A glorification of celebrity and repeated insistence on the notion that Whitney’s vocal range and billboard achievements were all that her short life stood for. A facsimile recreation of an already very much public existence is fine but far from engaging.

T.S.

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