"I Wanna Dance with Somebody" stars Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, and Clarke Peters. Released on December 23, 2022, the film chronicles the life and career of Whitney Houston.
The film was directed by Kasi Lemmons, who also directed films such as "Eve's Bayou", "Talk to Me", "Black Nativity", and "Harriet". People scrambled to get their last-minute gifts and organize their holiday plans with their friends and loved ones during the Christmas weekend. While that's happening, some people spent the holiday with one of the most prominent singers in history. The holiday weekend saw the release of another musical biopic centering on an icon that changed the music industry for the better. This time, it's Whitney Houston, whose soulful and improvised vocals made her a household name in the music industry and the film business. She has produced numerous hits that live on forever in memory, like "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and "I Will Always Love You". Additionally, she starred in films like "The Bodyguard" and "The Preacher's Wife" and even produced some of them, such as 1997's "Cinderella" and the "Princess Diaries" movies. This was all before her tragic death in February 2012 from accidentally drowning in her bathtub at the Beverly Hilton hotel. Her music will always be remembered, but this film shows that her life may also be worth remembering. So was the film able to capture the soul of the iconic artist and provide a musical treat worth seeing during the holiday season? Let's find out.
Whitney Houston is another artist I don't listen to that much compared to the recent ones. I've only heard a few songs from her and recognized her from "The Bodyguard" through my mother. But I just didn't get fully attached to her work as I did with Michael Jackson. So I was hoping that watching this movie would help me change my mind, similar to the other musical biopics from before. But, of course, it also has to have a compelling story that respects Houston's life and musical career and stands alongside other great biopics like "Ray" and "Straight Outta Compton". Unfortunately, the story it offered didn't reach the same depth and impact as her iconic music. But for hardcore fans of the artist, it's a satisfactory experience with enough admirable moments to keep the music flowing.
If you've watched the previous musical biopics based on artists like Elton John and Freddie Mercury, you'll immediately know what you're getting in this movie. The story mainly consists of Whitney Houston's successful career and the problems that affected it, including her rocky relationships with her father, John (Peters), and her husband, Bobby Brown (Sanders), and her drug addiction. Watching "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" is similar to reading a Wikipedia page about Whitney for two and a half hours. It includes plenty of important moments in her life and career that are worth the intrigue, mainly the songs and her relationships, but lacks a strong cinematic approach to them.
When taking the direction and Anthony McCarten's screenplay into account, the movie felt more like a collection of Whitney's greatest hits stitched together with its Hallmark-like melodrama. McCarten is best known for writing scripts for "The Theory of Everything" and "Darkest Hour", but he's also known for writing "Bohemian Rhapsody", which divided critics and audiences. While his screenplay for "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" respects Houston's career path, it lacks a strong emotional connection that made Houston beloved in the first place regarding its subpar dialogue and formulaic elements. The same should be said for its director Kasi Lemmons. Like McCarten, Lemmons has a good understanding of Whitney's personal problems and musical choices. However, she also lacks a unique and compelling flavor in her direction to keep it from growing more bare-bones as it progresses. It doesn't help that the movie suffers a bit from its runtime, especially in its third act, which went on longer than it should, despite how good it was.
The only elements that kept me tapping my toes with mild delight were the cast and the musical sequences. While the actors involved were far from awards-worthy, they still did a good job with their performances, including Naomi Ackie as Whitney. Ackie is known for appearing in shows like "The End of the F***ing World" and "Master of None". However, you might also recognize her from the final chapter of the divisive Star Wars sequel trilogy, "The Rise of Skywalker", where she played Jannah. With her being front and center as the iconic singer, Ackie had the opportunity to make herself known in the acting business, and she pulled it off reasonably well. Her mannerisms are on par with Houston's personality, and her charm is convincing enough for me to forgive its script and length. Stanley Tucci is also outstanding as Clive Davis, Whitney's record producer and supportive friend. Nafessa Williams and Ashton Sanders were both solid as Robyn Crawford and Bobby Brown, respectively.
Another element I enjoyed was the music, the critical ingredient of the musical biopic cuisine. The songs provided in the film are what made Whitney Houston a cultural icon regarding her soulful voice and passion. So it was crucial for the movie to have the presentation of her songs leave a lasting impact on her fans. While those scenes are far from outstanding, they provide plenty of pizazz and energy to recapture the experience of hearing Houston's beautiful voice. I would even say they're the most enjoyable parts of the film outside of its dramatic scenes regarding the direction and costume designs. The way Whitney moves and sings is enough to make me smile and tap my foot with delight.
Overall, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" is an interestingly watchable perspective on Whitney Houston that's constantly overshadowed by its bare-bones formula. To its credit, the love and respect for the iconic artist are present in the movie, and even though I don't know Houston personally, I'm happy that Kasi Lemmons and the crew took that to heart. However, when looking at it from a critical point of view, there's nothing else in the film aside from their love that makes me want to dance with it all day long. Naomi Ackie was a good fit as Whitney, which might be enough to put her on the Hollywood map, and the musical sequences are undoubtedly charming. Unfortunately, its cliched formula, screenplay, and middling direction kept it from shining as bright as the artist herself. On the bright side, though, it's not as mediocre as the other biopic clunkers like "The Dirt" and "All Eyez On Me", especially the latter. It's worth watching if you're a fan of Whitney's music or, in general, musical biopics.