It's not a great sign going in that I Wanna Dance With Somebody, the new biopic of Whitney Houston, comes from Anthony McCarten, the screenwriter of Bohemian Rhapsody, one of the worst biopics ever made about a great popular musician.
Fortunately, while I Wanna Dance With Somebody is a much better film that avoids most of the Queen movie's missteps, it does retain some of them. It helps that it has a better director (Kasi Lemmons, who made Eve's Bayou), one who didn't disappear from the set mid-film and then get fired. Nor was the film cut to ribbons in the editing room, and it’s not nearly as weird about the protagonist having had relationships with both men and women.
The good parts first: I Wanna Dance With Somebody does a fantastic job with the musicality and physicality of Houston. The late musical superstar is played by actress Naomi Ackie, albeit with Houston's vocals used in the musical numbers. Ackie's facial resemblance to Houston is far from exact, but that stopped bothering me after about five minutes. I Wanna Dance With Somebody succeeds in establishing Houston as a singular talent with one of the greatest singing voices in history.
The film follows about three decades in Houston's life, from her original discovery to her early albums to her most famous live performances. It later segues into her performance in the hit movie The Bodyguard, and ultimately her struggles with drugs and death in 2012, on the eve of the Grammy Awards. And there are also her love affairs.
The film doesn't put a label on Houston's sexuality, but it does make clear that she and longtime "creative director" Robyn Crawford were a romantic couple for many years, something Houston's family long denied. It also shows that she was sincere in her attraction to men, including her on-and-off husband Bobby Brown.
The musical numbers stand out, featuring nearly complete versions of most of Houston's hits, and the film pulls off a structural feat in its presentation of a medley she performed at the American Music Awards in 1994. It first forms a framing device, followed by a mid-film scene rehearsing it, and then it finally forms the climax.
The film also gets Houston's look right. The singer's physical appearance, especially her hair, changing frequently, and the production team nailed that.
However, one thing is clear: Just as Bohemian Rhapsody was Brian May and Roger Taylor's very specific take on the history of Queen, this film, in its telling, clearly favors the people who had a hand in its production, at the expense of those who didn’t.
For instance: In nearly every music biopic, the protagonist is introduced to a record executive or mogul, signs a contract, and the executive turns out to be exploitative and/or evil. But in this case, that executive is the legendary Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), who’s depicted throughout the film as the most benevolent, supportive and caring figure in the history of the music business, with none of the ruthlessness or greed typically associated with that world. That might be because Davis is an executive producer of the film, which also has the cooperation of Houston's surviving relatives (mostly her sister-in-law and estate executor Pat Houston).
The biggest villains are Houston's father John (Clarke Peters)—depicted as a cruel and philandering homophobe who stole millions from his daughter over the years—and Bobby Brown, shown in the film as one-dimensional abusive dick whose brief epoch of pop stardom was essentially kaput by the time he married Houston in the early-1990s.
The film sands down some negative details. There's no mention of Being Bobby Brown, the mid-2000s reality show that was widely seen as Houston's nadir, nor do we see her "crack is wack" interview from around that time. We see the famous Super Bowl national anthem performance from 1991, although if you didn't know that she lip-synched that day, you won't learn it from the movie.
In the last few years, there have been a pair of Whitney Houston documentaries: 2017's Whitney: Can I Be Me and 2018's Whitney, while earlier this year, there was also Beauty, a roman a clef based on Houston's early years, that aired on Netflix with little fanfare. Despite its flaws, I Wanna Dance With Somebody is good enough to go down as the definitive film about the singer.