Review: Clumsy Whitney Houston biopic mars its star’s skill

Mark Kennedy | 12/29/2022, 6 p.m.
Whitney Houston’s voice was one of a kind and the creative team behind a new big-budget biopic of the singer ...
This image released by Sony Pictures shows Naomi Ackie in Tristar’s “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody.” Photo by Associated Press

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 agree.

Naomi Ackie, who plays Ms. Houston in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” turns in a fierce performance but is asked to lip-sync throughout to Ms. Houston biggest hits. The effect is, at best, an expensive karaoke session.

The dilemma that Ms. Houston’s own prodigious gift put everyone in is understandable: The chances of finding someone who resembles the singer is hard enough; finding someone who also has the awe-inducing, fluttery vocal ability is a fool’s errand.

But the solution would have been choosing between focusing on Ms. Houston’s story or making a documentary that features her singing. It’s unfair to ask Ms. Ackie to act her heart out and also have her execute large parts of Ms. Houston’s iconic live performances in mimic mode. It’s an uncanny canyon.

The movie is written byAnthony McCarten, who told Freddie Mercury’s story in “Bohemian Rhapsody” and is having quite a moment with two shows on Broadway — “The Collaboration” about artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and “A Beautiful Noise,” a musical about Neil Diamond.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is more like a hyped-up “Behind the Music” episode set to Ms. Houston’s greatest hits album. It leans on all the cliches: overbearing parents, bad-boy boyfriends and giddy, champagne-popping montages on the way up and sullen montages on the way down as she’s hunted by paparazzi.

Ms. Houston is portrayed as a woman who seizes her destiny only late in her cut-short life after struggling with the burden of being the family breadwinner for most of it.

“Everyone is using me as an ATM!” she screams at one point.

Stanley Tucci plays a subdued and concerned Clive Davis — the record executive helped produce the film and comes off like a prince — and Nafessa Williams is superb as Ms. Houston’s best friend, manager and lover.

Mr. McCarten frames the climax of Ms. Houston’s life at the 1994 American Music Awards, where she won eight awards and performed a medley of songs. It is where director Kasi Lemmons’ camera starts and ends, part of an excruciating final section goodbye to the icon that lasts for what feels like an hour and ends with a heavy-handed, written statement that Ms. Houston was the “greatest voice of her generation.”

Credit to the Houston estate for not sanitizing Ms. Houston’s life, showing her early love affair with a woman, her pushy, demanding parents, the backlash from some in the Black community and not shying away from the descent into drugs that would kill her in 2012 at age 48.

Some highlights of the film include Ms. Houston and Mr. Davis picking hit songs in his office and the recreations of the filming of the video “How Will I Know” and Ms. Houston’s triumphant national anthem performance at Super Bowl XXV. Costume designer Charlese Antoinette Jones has joyously remade key looks, from Ms. Houston’s hair bow and arm warmers to the stunning wedding dress with beaded and sequined cloche hat.

Ms. Ackie’s performance is something to be cheered, reach- ing for the kind of authenticity that Andra Day channeled when she also tackled a doomed musical icon in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.”

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for “strong drug content, some strong language, suggestive references and smoking.” Running time: 146 minutes. Two stars out of four.