Even with surface-level writing and a refusal to ask the serious questions, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody is still a rather enjoyable watch
“Who’s the bodyguard?
Those who know me will know that I was gutted that Mr Costner didn’t get to play a part in Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody, I was looking forward to someone embodying peak-era Kevin but we had to make do with the briefest of flashes of the man himself. Which is somewhat symptomatic of the film as a whole, a surface-level rattling through the life and death of this iconic pop superstar.
Biopics are notoriously tricky to get right and the job is made trickier when the lines between subject and producers get blurred. This film was sanctioned by Houston’s family, with sister-in-law Pat Houston getting a producing credit as does noted music exec Clive Davis, so you can guess what kind of portrayal he gets. I mean, it’s one thing to be a visionary record producer but to have yourself depicted so is something else….
In terms of Whitney herself, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Kasi Lemmons start off promisingly by not ducking the truth of her relationship with Robyn Crawford, her friend, lover and long-time assistant. But the pace at which the film races through her life, and the level of detail with which it chooses to engage, means that there’s little that is substantive here. Literally, you could blink and miss her having a baby.
In some ways, most of the film playing out like a montage isn’t too bad, especially if you’re a fan. Her songs were a large part of the sound of my childhood and it’s a joy to see them performed via lip-sync by Naomi Ackie with her warm interpretation. The choice to have almost anything negative reported on rather than shown feels highly disingenous though – the depths of addiction, the vocal decline and wrecked concerts, the Bobby Brown of it all, none of it explored or examined.
It wouldn’t be quite so bad if we didn’t know where Whitney’s story ends (seriously, the number of shots of taps…!). Pretending that the narrative isn’t bending in that dark direction serves no-one well and whilst not quite dishonest, it adds to the candy-floss lightness of the film as a whole. Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters add value as her strong-minded parents whilst Stanley Tucci can’t quite swerve the hagiography of Clive Davis and even if I wanted more, I still enjoyed this for what it was.