Musical artist biopics. Just saying those words aloud is certain to elicit eye rolls from some people, particularly film critics. To write, produce and direct any movie is no easy feat, but to do so about a real life musical artist makes the work so much more challenging. The problem simply is that the more exciting and talented musicians and singers have usually made themselves living cliches. There is often a rise to success, followed by a fall from grace (usually due to addiction), and sometimes the resurrection of a life and career. Their lives and careers seem like the perfect material for the dramatic arts.
The trouble is, that there are way too many similar stories with similar patterns of behavior. Now, I hate to come across as insensitive when it comes to these troubling, or even tragic, true stories. However, so many filmmakers attempt these movies with the best of intentions, but usually fall into the same tired, formulaic patterns the prevent their pieces from standing above and beyond. That not only frustrates cinemaphiles, but also does their subject a great disservice.
Not all of these stories have happy endings. In fact, plenty of these biographies have tragic conclusions. Such is the case with the life and career of Whitney Houston. Like so many others before and after her, Ms. Houston had her battles with drug addiction which escalated horribly during a successful career as a pop and R & B singer. In I Wanna Dance With Somebody, director Kasi Lemmons aims to highlight the impact Houston’s talent had on the music world, and how her amazing voice touched so many. In addition, she also attempts to shed some light on her very personal woes, including her tempestuous marriage to singer Bobby Brown.
The story begins during Whitney’s (Naomi Ackie) late teen years. In these humble beginnings Whitney’s parents John (Clarke Peters) and Cissy (Tamara Tunie) work hard to send her to a private Catholic school. Cissy and her daughter do have one wonderful thing in common. They are both tremendous singers. And Mom sees the potential for greatness in her beloved “Nippy” (the family’s nickname for her). Cissy encourages her to develop and strengthen her singing talents by performing in their church choir and also by joining her onstage for gigs at a local nightclub.
It is there where she encounters the legendary record producer and music mogul Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci). Right away, Davis, Whitney and her parents work out a record deal and go straight to work. Clive sends the beautiful and gifted Whitney down a road of success with Arista Records where she records some incredibly successful albums. Unfortunately, problems with her family, the drive to be successful, and the exhausting and stressful nature of the recording, touring, recording cycle all take a heavy toll and fuel an already burgeoning drug habit.
With a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, Kasi Lemmons’ I Wanna Dance With Somebody does a fantastic job of recreating all the amazing and iconic performances by Whitney Houston. Lemmons and her crew go to painstaking measures to get all of the details correct. It is quite the remarkable thing to behold. However, as aesthetically pleasing and accurate as all of these sequences are, I wanted McCarten and Lemmons to dig much deeper into the psyche of Whitney.
I feel that the movie only scratches and glosses over the surface of the dark side of her troubles. We, the audience get glimpses into the different ways that Whitney was abused by her father (not physically, but mentally and financially), along with the disrespectful ways that her husband treated her and their marriage. The movie also addresses the crisis she had with her sexual identity, but then never really treats it as an ongoing issue, which I have a problem believing. Overall the film comes across as an impeccably produced compilation of her career highlights with smidgeon helping of her problems.
To the movie’s benefit the movie does feature solid to great performances by the cast. As her strong-willed, but mostly caring parents, both Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters perform solidly. As Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s former lover, best friend, and assistant, Nafessa Williams gives a very good turn. As the legendary Clive Davis, Stanley Tucci does a fantastic impression of the mogul and succeeds swimmingly. It is Naomi Ackie who appropriately shines the brightest, though, as “Nippy,” “The Voice,” the one and only Whitney Houston.
Ackie, despite the limitations of the movie’s writing, gives a transcendant performance that is guaranteed to have people forgetting occasionally that they’re watching an actor portraying the iconic singer. Now, even though it is not Ackie actually singing, she does a fantastic job of naturally lip syncing and recapturing the passion and energy that Whitney brought to her finest performances.
Despite my low rating, I am moderately recommending this movie, but only to the die hard fans of Whitney Houston. I feel that fans will find much to enjoy in the recreations of her most memorable pop culture touchstones and incredibly historic performances. For those looking for something deeper and more meaningful, or perhaps for clearer answers as to who Whitney Houston really was, this isn’t quite that movie.