This film from Kasi Lemmons is a jukebox retelling of Whitney Houston’s parabola from sweatshirts to sequins.
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By Amy Nicholson
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No one could sing like Whitney Houston, and Kasi Lemmons, the director of the biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” only rarely asks her lead, Naomi Ackie, to try. This is a jukebox retelling of Houston’s parabola from sweatshirts to sequins, from church choir girl to tabloid fixture, from her teenage romance with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), the woman who would continue on as her creative director, to her volatile marriage to Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), who slithers into the movie licking his lips like he’s hungry to eat her alive.
Those beats are here. But it’s the melodies that matter, those moments when Ackie opens her mouth to channel Houston’s previously recorded songs. We’ve heard Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” countless times, and Lemmons bets, correctly, that the beloved hit will still seize us by the heart during the rather forthright montage she pairs with it, images of Houston marrying Brown, birthing her daughter Bobbi Kristina and honoring Nelson Mandela underneath a sky filled with fireworks.
Ackie doesn’t much resemble the superstar, although her carriage is correct: eyes closed, head flung back, arms pushing away the air as if to make room for that mezzo-soprano. That the film sticks to Houston’s surfaces is half excusable. The screenwriter Anthony McCarten seems to find that the woman underneath the pop star shell was still struggling to define herself at the time of her death at the age of 48. We see her raised to be the mini-me of her mother, the singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), complete with matching haircut, and then handed over to a recording label to be transformed into America’s Princess, a crown she wore with hesitance, and, later, resentment. (Stanley Tucci plays her friendly, Fagin-with-a-combover Clive Davis of Arista Records, who also produced this film.) At Houston’s final “Oprah” performance, recreated here, she belts an earnest ballad called, “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength.”
Houston didn’t write her own material; she just sang like she did, courtesy of Cissy’s fastidious coaching. “God gives you a gift, you got to use it right,” Cissy lectures. Yet, Houston as seen here can only say yes or no to other people’s ideas of what she should sing, wear and do. (A camera pan suggests, unconvincingly, that Houston thought of the film’s title track as a love song to Crawford.) Increasingly, she chooses opposition. Her successes are shared — and her money swallowed up by her father (Clarke Peters), who was also her manager — but her mistakes are all hers. (Even though Lemmons takes care to include a scene in which Houston absolves Brown of her crack addiction.)
Houston’s defiance is the movie’s attempt to answer the great mystery of her career: why she deliberately damaged her voice through smoking and hard drugs. “It’s like leaving a Stradivarius in the rain!” Davis yelps. The trouble with a gift, the film decides, is it went undervalued by Houston herself, who assumes she’ll be able to hit bombastic high notes every night of her poorly reviewed final world tour. In this doomed stretch, the camera creeps so close to Ackie that you can count the beads of sweat on her nose. The smothering is heavy-handed, yet apropos for an artist who never had the space, or creative motivation, to fully express herself.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Rated PG-13 for drugs, cigarettes and swearing. Running time: 2 hours 26 minutes. In theaters.
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