When remembering the iconic life and career of Whitney Houston, there are many defining moments that instantly spring to mind: when she obliterated “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl in 1991, thereby rendering all other versions subpar, her soaring rendition of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” from “The Bodyguard,” or even her concert at Wembley Stadium in honor of Nelson Mandela. In the new biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” those moments are acknowledged, albeit briefly. Instead, writer-producer Anthony McCarten has chosen to bookend this slog through Houston’s career and all-too-short life with … her performance at the 1994 American Music Awards?
Indeed, the 10-minute medley, which is re-created in full, was a virtuosic vocal performance of which only Houston was capable, but this deep cut seems an odd choice to open and close the film. It’s the kind of choice that makes one question everything in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a film that is not engrossing enough on its own to prevent one’s mind from wandering toward the nagging questions about who made these decisions and why.
Director Kasi Lemmons is behind the camera, though McCarten, the writer of such award-winning biopics as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Darkest Hour,” “The Theory of Everything” and “The Two Popes,” is the driving force, having purchased the rights to Houston’s life and wrote the screenplay on spec. Legendary music mogul Clive Davis is also a producer, as well as Pat Houston, Whitney’s sister-in-law, former manager and the executor of her estate. Davis is played by Stanley Tucci in the film as a warm father figure and confidant for Whitney, while Kris Sidberry has a small role as Pat.
British actress Naomi Ackie bravely takes on the impossible task that is portraying Houston. While Ackie transforms herself, and nails all the Whitney-style mannerisms and gestures, the fact of the matter is that Whitney Houston’s talent and beauty was otherworldly in a way that mere mortals simply cannot channel.
As the film, set to the beat of that steady music biopic rhythm, progresses from hit song to hit song, with careful selections from Whitney’s complicated life playing out in between, the whole thing starts to feel like a promotion of her back catalogue. What McCarten chooses to reveal and conceal in Whitney’s story is telling, especially if you’ve seen any of the documentaries about her life; 2017’s “Whitney: Can I Be Me?” or 2018’s “Whitney.”
The sensitive details of Whitney’s life are approached with blunt instruments rather than incisiveness, and what’s left out seems indicative of who’s telling the story and why. Her romantic relationship with close friend Robyn (Nafessa Williams) is presented early and candidly, and the film implies her substance abuse issues are related to her repressed sexuality and the pressure to perform at the behest of her exploitative father John (Clarke Peters) and demanding , perfectionist mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie). Whitney’s drug use is presented as a solo endeavor, or as a part of her relationship with R&B bad boy Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), while other members of her inner circle are let off the hook.
Lemmons is a talented and experienced filmmaker, but cinematically, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is inert, leaving one to ponder if she was hamstrung by producers, the script, or shooting during the pandemic. There is no sense of world-building or life beyond the edges of the frame. Lemmons and Ackie faithfully re-create some of Whitney’s memorable music videos, but it always feels like Ackie is wearing a Whitney Houston costume rather than inhabiting a fully realized human being.
As the film progresses toward Whitney’s tragic end, it starts to take on a distinctly ghoulish quality, especially a scene that imagines her frame of mind before her death. It’s a film that ultimately feels less like a celebration and more like further exploitation of the star, leaving us all with much more unsettling questions about Houston’s life and legacy. Sadly, the disappointing “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” doesn’t let Whitney rest in peace.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG-13, for strong drug content, some strong language, suggestive references and smoking
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
playing: Starts Dec 23 in general release