Review: Clumsy Whitney Houston biopic mars its star’s skill
Whitney Houston’s voice was one-of-a-kind, and the creative team behind a new big-budget biopic of the singer had no choice but to approve.
Naomi Ackie, who plays Houston on “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” puts in a heavy performance but is asked to lip-sync to Houston’s greatest hits throughout. The effect is, at best, an expensive karaoke session.
The dilemma that Houston’s prodigious talent put everyone in is understandable: the odds of finding someone resembling the singer are slim enough; Finding someone who also has the awesome, fluttering voice is a no-brainer.
But the solution would have been to either focus on Houston’s story or make a documentary in which she sings. It’s unfair to ask Ackie to play her heart out and also have her perform large parts of Houston’s legendary live performances in mimic mode. It’s an eerie gorge.
The film was written by Anthony McCarten, who narrated the story of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and with two shows on Broadway – “The Collaboration” about artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and “A Beautiful Noise” – quite a bit moment. a musical about Neil Diamond. McCarten clearly impressed producers with his ability to tell the stories of modern day icons, but with Houston the catch is business pressures.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is more like a souped-up “behind the music” episode set to Houston’s greatest hits album. It borrows from all the clichés: overbearing parents, bad-boy friends, and dizzying, champagne-popping mondays on the way up and grumpy mondays on the way down while being chased by paparazzi.
Houston is portrayed as a woman who grasps her destiny late in her short life after struggling with the burden of being the breadwinner for the family most of the time.
“Everyone’s using me as an ATM!” She yells at one point.
Stanley Tucci plays a subdued and troubled Clive Davis – the record executive who helped produce the film and has the air of a prince – and Nafessa Williams is superb as Houston’s best friend, manager and lover.
McCarten frames the high point of Houston’s life at the 1994 American Music Awards, where she won eight awards and performed a medley of songs. This is where director Kasi Lemmons’ camera begins and ends, part of an agonizing final segment that bids farewell to the icon for what feels like an hour and ends with a clumsy, written statement that Houston is the “greatest voice of her generation.”
Credit to the Houston Estate for not sanitizing Houston’s life, showing her early love affair with a woman, her pushy, demanding parents, the backlash of some in the black community, and not shrinking from the descent into drugs that would kill her in 2012 at age 48 .
“Sometimes to sing with the gods you need a ladder,” Houston explains in the film.
Film highlights include Houston and Davis picking hits in his office, as well as reenactments of the filming of the How Will I Know video and Houston’s triumphant performance of the national anthem at Super Bowl XXV. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones has cheerfully reimagined key looks, from Houston’s hair bow and arm warmers to the stunning wedding dress with beaded and sequined cloche.
Less well executed is the section devoted to her filming of The Bodyguard – the filmmakers attempt to share an old clip of Kevin Costner on set, a trick they later try again with Oprah – and the portrayal of husband Bobby Brown isn’t nuanced, which makes him the clear villain of the play. Lemmons (“Harriet”) also uses a recurring image of a dripping faucet, a merciless way of heralding her death.
Ackie’s performance is something to cheer for, and taps into the kind of authenticity Andra Day channeled when she also took on a doomed music icon in The United States vs. Billie Holiday.
But so much clumsiness, scenes of unnaturally heightened drama with little insight, and compromised authenticity of the performances drag “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” down – ultimately it’s not right, but it’s just okay.
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a Sony Pictures release that hit theaters exclusively December 23, is rated PG-13 for “heavy drug content, some strong language, salacious innuendo and smoking.” Running time: 146 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents Urgently Warned. Some materials may be unsuitable for children under 13 years of age.
— Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press
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