Whitney Houston was a musical talent of epic proportions whose vocals could bring audiences not just to their feet but tears to their eyes as well. Though she never wrote her own material (she did, however, receive a co-writing credit on two songs), she had an exceptional knack for choosing the right songs that would allow her powerful voice to soar, and soar it did. Thirty-nine of her songs landed on the Billboard Hot 100 and she still holds the record for the only artist to have had seven consecutive number-one singles on that chart. Although it’s been slightly more than 10 years since Houston passed away, “The Voice”, as many referred to her, remains as popular as ever. Her short life has now received the Hollywood biopic treatment with I JUST WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY, a film that was co-produced by her one-time mentor and record producer, Clive Davis.
I JUST WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY begins with a teenaged Whitney (Naomi Ackie, STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER) singing in her mother, Cassie’s (Tamara Tunie, TV’s LAW & ORDER: SVU), church choir on Sundays and in Cassie’s stage act at night. Word reaches Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci, THE KING’S MAN; SUPERNOVA) of an impressive, young vocal talent and he goes to Cassie’s nightclub in New Jersey to see for himself. Like the audience there that night, Davis is blown away by Whitney and he signs her to a recording contract. She is barely 19 years old. Together, the two of them go on to make some of music’s biggest hits. Her success, though, brings a variety of problems into her life that eventually consume her.
For a story about an entertainer whose voice could move mountains and whose life was a whirlwind, I JUST WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY is surprisingly dull. Shall we chalk it up to writer Anthony McCarten, whose BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY whitewashed Freddie Mercury’s bisexuality and drug use; director Kasi Lemmons (HARRIET), who manages to turn the camera away every time Whitney’s character is about to snort some coke (what studios won’t do for that PG-13 rating); or Clive Davis, who is painted in the most glowing of lights? Let’s not forget that while Whitney was still lying dead in the bathtub of her Beverly Hilton suite, Davis’ pre-Grammy Awards party was going on four floors below. That little detail, by the way, is not in the movie.
That is the big problem with this film. The rough edges of Whitney’s life have been sanded down. Sure, we now learn more about her special relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, TV’s BLACK LIGHTNING) than we only just suspected before, we also learn about who suggested Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” to her (at least I never knew that), and we see that her marriage to Bobby Brown wasn’t perfect (an understatement if there ever was one), but where were the fireworks, the public meltdowns, the weight loss and, most importantly, the Diane Sawyer interview where she said, “Crack is wack”? None of that can be found in this movie.
It’s not all a yawnfest though. Ackie does a formidable job bringing the singer to life. Through the actress doesn’t look like Whitney, she has her signature arm gestures and eyes down pat. When she lip-syncs to Whitney’s songs, it’s easy to forget that you’re not watching the real thing. That, along with a couple of humorous scenes, are about the only good things with this movie.
I JUST WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY opens in Hong Kong on Thursday (January 5th). Regardless of its shortcomings, if you’re the type of person who can listen to “I Will Always Love You” on a loop, and there are many people out there who can, you’re going to love this film. For the rest of us though, I JUST WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY fails to excite.
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