Home Entertainment The ‘Whitney Houston’ biopic pays tribute to the problematic singer

The ‘Whitney Houston’ biopic pays tribute to the problematic singer

The ‘Whitney Houston’ biopic pays tribute to the problematic singer
Naomi Ackie / In "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody," British actor Naomi Ackie performs the title character. Photo by TriStar Pictures

Naomi Ackie appears to embody the pop star in this lighthearted but constantly entertaining film.

By Richard Roeper

One could argue that a Whitney Houston biopic was unnecessary, given that in the decade since Houston’s tragic death at the age of 48, we’ve seen a slew of TV specials, at least two documentaries, “Whitney: Can I Be Me?” and “Whitney,” a Lifetime biopic also titled “Whitney,” and a thinly veiled Netflix film called “Beauty” that was clearly inspired by Houston. And we can easily Google and find footage of Houston’s iconic performances, from her 18-year-old television debut on “The Merv Griffin Show” to her legendary rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl to her live performance of a trio of songs at the 1994 American Music Awards, plus all those music videos.

But still. Why not Houston in a year when both Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley were fictionalised bios for the third time? Unlike the scintillating and dizzying “Elvis” and the exploitative and nightmare-inducing “Blonde,” director Kasi Lemmons’ “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a genuine “Film-ipedia” entry that is more homage than epitaph, more celebration than sorrow.

With astonishingly accurate re-creations of many of Houston’s touchstone performances and a star-power performance from British actor Naomi Ackie as Houston, as well as stellar supporting work from a dependable cast of veteran and familiar faces, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is a consistently entertaining biopic that rarely delves beneath the surface despite its 2 hour and 26 minute running time. Houston is given the “Bohemian Rhapsody” treatment in that the picture glosses over some of her darker times. (In reality, Anthony McCarten wrote the screenplay for both films), but it works wonderfully as a feature-length biography showcasing one of the most amazing voices and one of the most infectious celebrity personas of an age.

‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’

The picture is directed by Kasi Lemmons and scripted by Anthony McCarten for TriStar Pictures. The film is rated PG-13 (for strong drug content, some strong language, suggestive references and smoking). The film lasts 146 minutes. Local cinemas will open on Thursday.

After a brief prologue in which we see Houston growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, in a home where her parents, John (Clarke Peters) and Cissy (Tamara Tunie) fought frequently and loudly, and Houston meeting and eventually falling in love with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), it’s time for the “Star is Born” moments.

The legendary starmaker Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci, in full mensch-father-figure mode) is in attendance when Cissy arranges for Houston to sing “The Greatest Love of All” at the New York nightclub Sweetwater’s. A few weeks later, Clive is introducing Houston to Merv Griffin and a national TV audience, and when Houston kills with a rendition of “Home” from “The Wiz,” she’s on her way to superstardom.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” contains all of the expected musical biopic elements, such as a medley depicting her building up one No. 1 hit after another, relocating into an absurdly oversized house, performing in front of admiring audiences, and so on. Lemmons and the production design, costume, and makeup workers do an outstanding job of recreating the music video for “How Will I Know,” as well as Houston’s stunning rendition of the national anthem during the Super Bowl (though the crowd scenes and the fighter jets are obvious CGI creations).

While Houston’s mother Cissy is domineering but obviously loving and helpful, her husband John exploits his position as Houston’s manager all the way to his deathbed, demanding payment. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” barely mentions the 1988 Soul Train Music Awards dispute, in which protestors alleged Houston was too bland and white-sounding.

Cue the introduction of Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders from “Moonlight”), a shady character who clung to Houston for legitimacy, while she seemed to be attracted to him for some type of street reputation. We’ve all seen how destructive and terrible that partnership was. But, while we see Houston getting inebriated and know what is going to happen to her, we don’t see anything as stark and frightening as we did in real life, such as Houston’s catastrophic “Crack is whack” conversation with Diane Sawyer.

Naomi Ackie bears no apparent resemblance to Houston, but she embodies her, particularly in the performance sequences. Houston’s vocal is almost entirely heard; as Ackie described it in an interview, “97.9% of it is Whitney.” Still, when Ackie takes the stage at the 1994 American Music Awards and lip-syncs to Whitney Houston’s epic performances of “I Loves You Porgy,” “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” and “I Have Nothing,” it’s a soaring, triumphant sequence reminding us of why we loved Whitney Houston and why we wish she had been able to fend off those demons and continue to sing with the angels.


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