‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ Review: Whitney Houston Biopic Plays the Hits, but Still Manages to Surprise

Naomi Ackie shines in her performance of the songstress in a film that doesn’t shy away from the singer’s attraction to women

I Wanna Dance With Somebody

Engineered to satisfy the nostalgia of adoring fans, the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” unfurls as an inventory of touchstone moments in the gifted singer’s tumultuous career — a greatest hits album if you will.

With Naomi Ackie (“Small Axe”) in the central role and veteran director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”) at the helm, the generally by-the-numbers execution and structure still yields some goosebumps-inducing highlights that evoke Houston’s stage presence.

The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, a sought-after biopic writer whose recent credits include the utterly conventional but awards-friendly “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Darkest Hour,” drops us into the timeline in 1983 when Houston shared her privileged pipes with her congregation and at a local New Jersey club with her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie).

Unexpectedly — considering how McCarten’s film on the Queen vocalist sanitized his sexuality — Houston’s romantic attraction for women is established from the early scenes, as she befriends Robyn (Nafessa Williams) before ever signing a record deal. And though their bond changes over time, Robyn remains a major figure throughout the narrative.

Lemmons’ latest often feels akin to a concert movie in that the majority of the songs performed on screen appear in their full versions, occasionally used as a montage to advance our knowledge of Houston’s private life. But considering that the voice we hear is that of Houston herself, meaning one could watch the original live performances online, the need for including re-creations of these moments from start to finish is puzzling.

“How Will I Know,” “I Will Always Love You,” and, of course, the eponymous party anthem, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” get their moment in the spotlight — the filmmakers imply that for Houston the “somebody” in the lyrics of the latter was always Robyn.

Interestingly, one of Lemmons and her editor Daysha Broadway’s likely challenges was getting a PG-13 rating for the movie in hopes of reaching as wide an audience as possible. They resolved it astutely in what and how they chose is to show: drug use appears implied rather than explicitly, there are few curse words and no sex scenes. And yet, since these elements are cautiously present, it never feels as if the film is shying away from them.

One of the recurrent topics here is Houston’s agency as an artist. Though she didn’t write her own songs, her instincts to pick those that spoke to her as artistically challenging feats or that resonated with her own heartbreaks rarely failed her. That creative confidence, of course, clashes with the pressure of fulfilling her father’s expectations and the demands of public opinion, particularly in relation to the scrutiny of her Black identity.

A medley of all Houston’s facets off stage without any of them becoming a focus, the movie can’t overcome the impossibility of trying to encompass the entirety of a person in two hours. Hence why some of the most successful biopics are those that zero in on a specific chapter of a person’s life that may speak to their essence.

Through it all, Ackie radiates contagious joie de vivre and commands the stage with a force comparable to that of the experience songstress she is embodying. Across the eras, wardrobe changes, short-lived smiles and bitter tears, and eventually the addiction and scandals, Ackie’s portrayal of Houston stands out not only for lip-synching so precisely and convincingly it makes one wonder if she is in fact singing, but because rather than imitate she seems to simply be trying to channel the cornerstones of her personality.

Conversely, Ashton Sanders, an actor whose previous efforts have showcased his layered abilities, disappoints with a caricature-like turn as Bobby Brown, making for the weakest presence among the key players. Stanley Tucci plays producer Clive Davis with a soft touch that reaffirms his reputation as a caring collaborator in an industry brimming with unscrupulous or predatory individuals. In contrast ,John Houston (Clarke Peters), the singer’s father, receives a less than flattering treatment exposing his extramarital affairs and the ways he squandered his daughter’s hard-earned profits to inflate his status.

The most bizarre choices in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” however, come during the sequence re-creating Houston’s performance of the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Her unparalleled rendition intercuts with clips of immigrant families and military personnel cheering while watching on TV. The intent likely is to express how relevant and even the unifying her voice was at the time, but the result is a tonally hackneyed vignette.

That same segment also makes us aware of how unnatural the VFX for the crowds and the fighter jets look undercutting the proficient, if not extraordinary, work of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. On a commendable note, Lemmons doesn’t cast actors to play Kevin Costner in “The Bodyguard” or Oprah Winfrey for the scene reviving Houston’s comeback performance on her show. The camera cuts to the monitors on set to show the actual likeness of these celebrities.

Rather than let the tragic end of Houston’s life close out the film, Lemmons and McCarten choose to leave the audience with a cinematic tribute to the irreplaceable artist at the peak of her vocal powers during one of her most emblematic performances. It ends on a high note, so to speak.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” open in US theaters Dec. 23 via Sony Pictures.