I’m not sure what a great Whitney Houston movie would look like. Like so many before, she was an extremely talented and massively successful artist whose drug abuse ended up destroying her at too young of an age. It seems such a typical story, but she was not a typical talent, which is what I Wanna Dance With Somebody can’t seem to really grasp (despite how many times it tells us).
From the start, when we meet teenage Whitney (Naomi Ackie) singing in the church choir, we are told over and over how she is exceptional. Her singer mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie, making the most of a small role) can certainly see her daughter’s gifts, and she tries to shape her skills while trying to reign her in with some discipline, both in her craft and her personal life. But Whitney, we see early on, is doing what she wants, smoking out of a bong pipe with her brother and moving in with her girlfriend Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, who is pretty stinkin’ adorable).
Whitney’s super-stardom is meteoric, at least in movie terms. After famous producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) scouts her at a club and immediately signs her, next thing you know she already has a number one hit. When this success hits at about 20 minutes into a 2-1/2 hour movie, you realize they plan on covering a LOT. Seven consecutive number one hits. The transition of Robyn from lover to loyal protector in her inner circle. The meet-cute with bad-boy Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) at an awards show. The birth of Bobbi Kristina. The success of The Bodyguard film. The troubled relationship with her father/manager who had no problem living high off her fortunes. Then, of course, the drugs, drugs, and more drugs.
One of the best, most honest scenes is when Clive Davis sits down with a clearly agitated Whitney and tells her to go to rehab. Of course, this moment effortlessly rises above by the sheer force of Tucci’s talents, but it shows you what seems to be missing. I Wanna Dance never stops to take a breath, to leave space for quiet, intimate moments. Instead it throws in recreated musical performances interspersed with a timeline of events that we are already all so familiar with. Rather than another fight or confrontation, I wanted to see more of Whitney giggling on the couch while Clive popped in cassette after cassette of potential songs, showcasing their creative process. More of the who and how, please, and less of the what and where.
At least I Wanna Dance thankfully ends on a high note, avoiding being a looky-loo at Houston’s tragic end, by going back to her prime when she wowed audiences at the American Music Awards in 1994. Her incredible medley of “I Loves You, Porgy / And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going / I Have Nothing” still wows. But in the same way that the real footage of Elvis Presley singing “Unchained Melody” at the end of Elvis gave me the chills that the rest of the film lacked, looking at the real Whitney Houston’s performance on YouTube reminded me of what a powerful performer she actually was. The formulaic jukebox I Wanna Dance misses the magic of the real thing, leaving a perfunctory downward-spiral biopic.