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‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ (review)

Whitney Houston was one of the greatest voices not of her generation, but of all time. Her energy, range, and power were legendary, with stage presence that dazzled sold-out stadiums worldwide. Artistically, this is a very high bar to frame a movie around.

While I Wanna Dance With Somebody does justice to Houston’s performances with near-perfect recreations, the story in between suffers from poor pacing and a seeming unwillingness to reflect on the more troubled aspects of her life.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons and written by Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody), this biopic treats Whitney Houston’s story with kid gloves. Is it a reverence for “America’s Princess” or the fact that her sister-in-law Pat Houston is a producer?

For whatever reason, a deeper examination of drug use, financial issues, or the loss of her voice feels off limits. Any time the darkness gets too close, a warm and sunny song comes in to transition the mood back to an upbeat space.

It closely mirrors the real-life chokehold they had on her public image.

The full two and a half hours will be felt, and you will still leave with a sense that something important fell to the cutting room floor.

Lemmons directed the slow-burning classic Eve’s Bayou, but never seems to catch the rhythm here.

While Whitney is performing on the Merv Griffin Show, Cissy realizes the song is too slow and sneaks off to give the band some “gentle direction”. How I wish she was behind Lemmons, urging her to pick up the pace of a slow, plodding storyline. It makes every scene seem to take too long to say too little.

Luckily, the recreations of iconic moments like singing the National Anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl are perfect in a way that approaches camp. If anything, the movie’s extended recreations make it all seem like a visual album of throwbacks with just enough story in between to get to the next lip sync. The amazing catalog can lift any scene with the power of pop, but it is used too often to prop up lackluster and formulaic writing.

Time and time again, the supporting artists stole the show from Naomi Ackie, who thankfully had more to work with in the very last third of the film.

Particularly memorable was Nafessa Williams as Robyn Crawford, Whitney’s lover and later assistant. Williams brought charm, energy, and strength to a role that was only recently confirmed in Crawford’s biopic.

Whitney fans will have a leisurely stroll down memory lane, while casual fans will feel the gaps that depend on an Us weekly subscription to fill.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Denis O’Sullivan, Jeff Kalligheri, Anthony McCarten,
Pat Houston, Clive Davis, Larry Mestel, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill,
Trent Luckinbill, Matt Jackson, Christina Papagjika, Matthew Salloway

Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders,
Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters

 

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