In the 1980s, a talented young musician becomes a pop icon, recording beloved songs before plummeting due to negative influences and vices.
This is the plot of both the new Whitney Houston drama “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and the Al Yankovic comedy “Weird,” which was created specifically to parody musical biopics like the former. Although Naomi Ackie is fantastic as Houston, “I Wanna Dance” clings to that tired formula.
The film (out of four; rated PG-13; in theatres Friday) directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) is a cursory examination of Houston’s life story with a pretty great soundtrack, beginning with a young girl with a huge voice singing in her New Jersey church choir – and under the watchful eye of her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie). Whitney is discovered by record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), quickly becomes a superstar, falls in love with (and marries) R&B artist Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and battles drug addiction before dying in 2012 at the age of 48.
At two hours and 26 minutes, “Somebody” is far too long – almost every film is guilty of this particular sin right now – but, worse, it feels it. Anthony McCarten wrote both this and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a best picture nominee that was anything but, and Houston’s story ultimately follows in the footsteps of his Queen biopic: a Wikipedia entry brought to middling life on screen.
With songs like “Greatest Love of All,” “I Will Always Love You,” and, of course, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” the pop singer’s songs lean toward the legendary, and Lemmons captures the electricity of Houston’s music in the film’s best scenes. She recreates the “How Will I Know” video for a nostalgic treat, and Houston’s famous rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl still gives her chills. (One minor quibble: some performance scenes spend an unusually long time looking at the audience. We get it; she was fantastic.)
Ackie’s own voice can be heard at times, similar to Rami Malek’s Freddie Mercury in “Rhapsody,” but she mostly performs to Houston’s signature vocals. In those scenes, the actress does an excellent job of capturing the pop singer’s demeanour and performance style.
Everything else in between is the real issue. “Somebody” retells events from Houston’s personal and professional lives without adding anything nuanced or surprising. Too often, Clive approaches her with an opportunity (such as the ambitious “Impossible Medley” or the Kevin Costner film “The Bodyguard”), she initially baulks before saying yes, and then it becomes a thing, rinse, repeat.
Whitney’s romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford is one of the story threads that may have people Googling afterward (Nafessa Williams). They met as teenagers and became girlfriends, and when Whitney begins to pursue relationships with men, Robyn remains as Whitney’s assistant and tries to keep her grounded – especially with Brown in her life – but to no avail. That aspect, as well as several others (such as the “Bodyguard” stuff and the national anthem happening days after we went to war), would have made better focal points for a window-in-time story than the soup-to-nuts approach.
Williams gives Robyn, arguably the least-known main character in this true-life story, a grounded energy, and the film is well-acted overall: Tucci, like Ackie, inhabits Davis as a mentor as well as Tunie does as Houston’s mother. Sanders, who was so powerful in “Moonlight,” is a little wasted in this one-note role as Brown.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a musically exciting but narratively watered-down look at the life of a pop-culture icon, and while it may be enough for many Houston fans, the greatest voice of her generation deserves more than a middling biopic.