Movie Review: Recreating Whitney — “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”

The formula for a screen musical biography was already established by the time “Rhapsody in Blue,” which celebrated the brief, brilliant life of George Gershwin in a 1945 film that came out just a couple of years after his death.

Such movies typically hit the spine-tingling moments of epiphany, acts of creation that show us why a Gershwin, Tina Turner, Ray Charles or Elton John are remembered.

There will be the telling details of what formed them, that first inspiration, that first love or that abusive husband.

And we’ll see the artist’s sad end foreshadowed, or final triumph against the odds heralded.

Let the record reflect that you don’t have to deliver a “Ray” or “Walk the Line” every time out, recent films that set the bar high. You don’t have to spend Baz Luhrmann money and give us “Elvis.” All you have to do is recreate the joy an artist brought to people’s lives, and if they died too soon, remind us of the ache their passing brought to their fans and the culture.

“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” the new Whitney Houston musical biopic, absolutely nails those fundamentals. Director Kasi Lemmons, who made “Black Nativity” and “Eve’s Bayou,” and BATFA-winning English actress Naomi Ackie (“Small Axe,” “The Score”) conjure up a lovely gloss of Houston’s meteoric rise and the music and made her, followed by her tragic fall.

It’s a little more “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” than the most dramatically powerful films the genre has produced. But if you’re even a casual fan of “the greatest voice of her generation,” you cannot and should not miss it.

Anthony McCarten’s screenplay gives us a much more candid Whitney than Oprah and other TV interviewers or tabloids every did, starting with her first serious teen romance — with college basketballer Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams, superb) , who remained her confidante and paid “consultant” for the rest of her life. Even though we have to figure that the Houston family, which had a controlling hand in the production, rubbed some of the rough edges off her parents, and music impresario Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci at his most regal — perfect), another producer on the film, makes sure we realize Davis was her greatest champion — we’re still getting an intimate-enough portrait informed by Houston’s little-publicized sexuality.

Ackie and the late Whitney Houston share the singing duties, although even paying careful attention to the soundtrack, I was never sure I was hearing The Real Whitney’s distinct and BIG three-octave-range mezzo-soprano on tracks that if you were alive in America in the ’80s and ’90s, became a permanent part of your musical memory.

We see what an exacting taskmaster Whitney’s legendary but not-nearly-as-famous soul-singing mother Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie of “Flight,” fiery and fun) was, drilling her daughter after church choir practice on breathing, projecting, getting the melody right, “enunciating” and learning to “tell a story” with a song.

“God gave you a gift. You’ve gotta use it right.”

And we watch Cissy feign illness so that her back-up singer daughter can take the solo in “Greatest Love of All” at a club date that the famous producer Davis was invited to attend.

“I think I might have just heard the greatest voice of her generation,” he supposedly declared that night, a legend repeated here. Davis will be her collaborator, finding her songs to consider, masterminding — always deferring to her tastes and wishes — a recording career for the ages.

We see the day Whitney met Robyn, the blind eye her parents turned to these “roommates” until stardom beckoned and her bossy, stern and power-tripping father (the splendid Clarke Peters of “Three Billboards” and “Da Five Bloods”) intervened.

“You get out there and be seen with young MEN!”

If Houston was unhappy, taking drugs for “a vacation” because she was being worked to death, some of misery might have been, the film suggests, caused by not having the freedom to be wholly herself. We see the drinks offered her at every turn from the beginning of her career, which the film underscores by having Houston herself let her co-dependent, unfaithful husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Hudson) off the hook for addictions.

One electric moment has Whitney/Ackie softly singing and humming and expertly timing out how long this note or that musical phrase will have to be held to make a song work. Even if Ackie’s performance leans heavily on a dead-on impersonation, she gives us earthiness and warmth and flashes “Jersey Girl” fury as this incandescent star.

The lady knew her art and her craft.

And we get a delightful sampling of Big Moments in Houston’s rise, stand-out scenes amidst a double album of full or nearly-complete song performances. Lemmons knew who her biggest asset was, and keeps Ackie on camera and singing — overdoing it at church, knocking them dead on “The Merv Griffin Show” as Clive’s “latest discovery (with Cissy charging backstage to lead the band to a faster tempo),” hearing the possibilities in a pop trifle like “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and turning a Super Bowl performance of the National Anthem into “Do you remember where you were?” cultural touchstone moment.

“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” can seem choppy, despite its two and a half hour running time, when we see the slim, model-beautiful Houston face blowback from the Black community for “not being Black enough,” something we see happen but never hear truly explained. Perhaps rumors of her sexuality played into that.

The pursuit of Bobby Brown is treated as a “meet cute” with a “bad boy” attraction, and not as mercenary as it might have seemed at the time, with Houston anxious to quiet “lesbian” rumors.

The movie’s second biggest laugh might be her manic late-night call to Davis, “I wanna make movies,” she announces. Davis asks, “But why?” And then a pregnant pause, followed by “We’ll find you a movie.”

The film’s epic stop-the-show laugh is the way Houston decides to do “that movie.”

As I said in this review’s long prologue, it’s not necessary for every music biopic to be a great work of art and instant Oscar contender. “Aretha” was perfectly serviceable. If you want to see Chadwick Boseman’s best performance, get down with “Get On Up.” And all those churlish trolls who can’t get over “Bohemian Rhapsody’s” Oscar glory will almost certainly miss the point here, too.

These movies are about reminding us how these songs made us feel when they were new, and how bowled over we were by the people who performed them. Ackie, Lemmons & Co. do that, and rescue Houston from her “tragedy” to remind us why the world fell in love with her and once-in-a-generation voice.

And if a few tears well up at just the right moments, that’s just another experience the haters will have to miss out on. I just adored “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” almost as much as I adored Ms. Houston.

Rating: PG-13, drug abuse, profanity

Cast: Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie and Clarke Peters.

Credits: Directed by Kasi Lemmons, scripted by Anthony McCarten. A Tristar release.

Running time: 2:26

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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