a flawed but fitting tribute to a complex icon

The poster for this biopic proudly pronounces that “Naomie Ackie is Whitney Houston“. That’s quite a claim, but Ackie’s performance as the late superstar is genuinely transformative. She doesn’t just nail Houston’s distinctive speaking voice and stage mannerisms – the lip quivers, the dramatic hand gestures – but also captures her plucky spirit. Houston’s friends and family members didn’t call her “Nippy” for nothing.

British actress Ackie, greatest recognized for her BAFTA-winning flip in The End of the F***ing World, invests Houston with great empathy all through. Still, probably the most shifting scenes come on the finish when Houston is grappling together with her diminished vocal capacity. When everybody is aware of you because the “The Voice”, who do you grow to be when it’s gone?

Ackie reveals off her personal vocal vary in an early scene, however for the rest of the film we see her lip-syncing to Houston’s superior reside and recorded performances. It’s a smart artistic choice that Ackie’s co-star Stanley Tucci summed up completely in a latest interview: “The only person who can sing like Whitney Houston was Whitney Houston, let’s face it.”

Ultimately, reminding us of this reward is the movie’s raison d’être: it definitely doesn’t draw back from recreating the singer’s well-known reside performances and music movies. But, a decade after her demise from unintended drowning as a result of results of cocaine and coronary heart illness, Houston the individual stays an enigma – one I Wanna Dance with Somebody by no means totally will get a grip on. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who additionally wrote the mega-successful Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, merely takes on an excessive amount of. Director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou) retains the tempo brisk however her movie nonetheless clocks in at a bloated 148 minutes.

We meet Houston as a young person having vocal approach hammered into her by mom Cissy (Tamara Tunie) – a Grammy-winning singer in her personal proper – and comply with her to that desperately unhappy demise shortly earlier than the 2012 Grammy Awards. That’s an enormously eventful three a long time by which Houston indicators a cope with legendary report exec Clive Davis (Tucci), will get marketed somewhat misleadingly as “America’s sweetheart”, scores extra consecutive number-one singles than The Beatles (7), then faces accusations from some Black music followers that she “sold out” to construct a white fanbase.

Deep breath… we additionally see her marry the unreliable R&B singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), give start to their daughter Bobbi Kristina, ship a transcendent a cappella rendition of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on the 1991 Super Bowl, star in The Bodyguard and switch Dolly Parton‘s ‘I Will Always Love You’ right into a vocal masterclass, minimize the defiant R&B traditional ‘It’s Not Right But It’s Okay’, then descend into drug abuse earlier than mounting a reasonably shaky comeback. Honestly, there’s quite a bit right here to absorb.

Nefessa Williams as Robyn Crawford and Naomie Ackie as Whitney Houston in ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’. CREDIT: Sony Pictures

Thankfully, not like Bohemian Rhapsody, Lemmons’ movie doesn’t attempt to downplay Houston’s queerness. Early on, there are poignant glimpses of her relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) and the way in which it’s perceived as an issue by Houston’s domineering father John (Clarke Peters). Crawford remained on board as Houston’s greatest pal and artistic director lengthy after their romance ended, however ultimately will get pushed out by Brown, whose personal affect on Houston is far much less nourishing.

Sadly, I Wanna Dance with Somebody appears much less involved in different facets of Houston’s identification. When she tells Davis she is exhausted the way in which “all Black women are exhausted”, the movie doesn’t hassle delving into why. It leaves different key questions hanging in mid-air. Why wasn’t Houston extra involved in writing her personal songs? Why did she stick with it smoking even when it began inflicting vocal harm? We’re proven that she by no means had any drawback getting maintain of tougher medicine. And was her skilled relationship with Clive Davis actually as benevolent as it’s portrayed right here? The truth Davis is credited as one of many film’s producers could supply a clue.

Somewhat inevitably, the movie ends with a blinding recreation of an iconic Houston reside efficiency. The narrative system that takes us there feels contrived – Houston is reminded of the night time in query by a sympathetic barman – however the emotional payoff is satisfying anyway. I Wanna Dance with Somebody isn’t as illuminating because it could possibly be, nevertheless it nonetheless looks like a becoming tribute to a courageous and sophisticated artist with a genuinely unimaginable reward.


  • Director: Kasi Lemmons
  • Starring: Naomie Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders
  • Release date: December 21 (Part 2 on YouTube)

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