Whitney Houston was an icon, a legend of the music industry and a breathtaking pop idol who cranked out hit after hit, shattering records that previously the Beatles and Elvis held. Houston had enormous range and depth, yet the film about this larger-than-life superstar is somehow one of the flattest, cheapest, and most underwhelming music biopics to ever land on the silver screen.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Harriet, Eve’s Bayou), Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody somehow manages to make the life of Houston so painfully dull and thin. Just as the heat begins to rise, the film skips ahead, or around, orbiting the chance to dig deeper, to offer a more meaningful glimpse into the pop star’s history. Anthony McCarten’s script coasts, breezing through Houston’s life with a coolness that is anticlimactic. Father issues, her divorce, queer identity struggles, and addiction are danced around, never really creating a deep impact on an emotional level. When the bombastic moments like Houston’s historic performances in a newly post-apartheid South Africa arrive, they do so with a whimper, with tacky CGI stadiums that bring a tepid energy to the watered-down performances.
There’s no bite to Naomi Ackie’s performance, and perhaps that is because she’s not given anything worth chewing on. Even the clothes they drape her in feel cheap and poorly made. One of the film’s greatest injustices is that, after Ackie’s “big” performance of the iconic “I Have Nothing” medley Houston sang at the 1994 American Music Awards, the live broadcast is immediately shown in the credits, highlighting the stark difference in quality. The movie replaces her lush velvet caped black dress with a fast-fashion, wrinkled gown that’s bejeweled with clunky plastic gems. This fizzled ending echoes the sentiment of the entire film, a watered-down TV-soap approach to its dramatic subject.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is like the SparkNotes of her life, a smattering of collected moments that feel hollow. The film retroactively makes Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis look like a masterpiece for actually trying to be bedazzling and insane, because Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is so stale it might as well have been shoved directly onto a streaming platform to wither away forgotten – unlike Houston’s discography, which will be remembered for decades to come.
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