Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 24 minutes, Director – Kasi Lemmons
Biopic charting the rising career, fame and personal life of Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie)
Early on, while rehearsing songs for church, Whitney Houston’s mother (Tamara Tunie) reminds her that “every song is about a story, there is no story about a song”. Cue a film constructed largely around build-up to songs which reflect the events in Houston’s life and pretty much summarise the 20 minutes or so which have come before them. The story behind and within each one throughout constructs that chaptered narrative charting the singer’s career, fame and rocky personal life.
I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a largely by-the-numbers biopic. We’ve seen the various elements played out before, and indeed a handful of the shots, however there’s something which keeps you in place and, despite the flaws, generally engaged throughout. Perhaps it’s down to the pacing. The almost two-and-a-half-hour run-time goes by quickly as it runs through the key elements of its central figure’s life. It ticks the boxes and gets through its chapters almost so quickly that you don’t always know what year certain scenes are set in. At times it feels as if everything could almost be set in the same six month span. We don’t even get told properly how old the star is until part way through when a news broadcast mentions she’s 23 – allowing for the following montage and rise in fame to have a sense of wonderment and astonishment to it.
Naomi Ackie plays the central role well, bouncing off each of the supporting cast with an effective manner. While during concert sequences it may be evident that there’s some form of lip-syncing/ dubbing with Houston’s actual voice involved when it comes to the acting in the dramatic instances there’s a good turn from the lead, particularly in the set-up focusing on younger, rising-fame years. This isn’t to say that things weaken as we see Houston aging(ish). As themes of drug addiction begin to come into play there’s a deeper dramatic edge. In fact, one highlight scene involves a quiet, frank conversation involving Stanley Tucci’s supportive record producer Clive Davis bringing up the matter of rehab to his struggling friend and singer. While still dealt with within the parameters of a 12/ PG-13 boundary it certainly feels as if such themes are confronted with more than in a number of other music biopics – including screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s past effort Bohemian Rhapsody.
It’s perhaps such points which keep you engaged throughout the film. Again, you see the flaws and occasional by-the-numbers elements, however they never feel enough, or as consistently visible, to bog the film down and cause a major disconnect. It’s almost certain that this won’t work for a number of people who may notice the formula more, or may simply be more irked by the chaptering of events, and there may be those who view this as just ‘fine’. In fact, that’s probably what I Wanna Dance With Somebody is. A simply ‘fine’ feature. Yet, at least it is that and manages to click and work amongst some of the weaker elements within its construction. Whatever it is that makes it rise just above that and flow as well as it does, it clearly works to some degree and makes for an engaging, lightly enjoyable musical biopic. With the kind of familiar style where you kind of know what you’re getting in general even if you’re not overly aware of the details of the subjects life (as was, admittedly, the case for me). Not quite as strong as the titular Voice, but still a good effort for what’s present.
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is an undeniably by-the-numbers musical biopic. However, there’s something about it that makes the time go by quickly with enough to engage to stop things from being bogged down within the familiarity which lies throughout. It’ll definitely have varying responses, but for some there’s enough present in the dramas to distract from the weaker elements.