What is it about the awkward titles of movies about Whitney Houston?
First, there was the 2017 documentary “Whitney: Can I Be Me” which for some inexplicable reason lacked a question mark. Now, we have Kasi Lemmons’ equally unwieldy titled “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” (Tristar Pictures/Sony), just released on Blu-ray and digital. Wouldn’t the iconic Houston tune be enough to indicate that the movie is about her?
Bracketed by Houston’s legendary 1994 American Music Awards performance, “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” quickly takes us back to 1983 New Jersey where strict taskmaster Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) disapproves of defiant daughter Whitney’s (Naomi Ackie) showboating in the church choir. This is obviously meant to set the tone for the mother/daughter duo’s tempestuous relationship.
Shortly thereafter, Whitney meets Robyn (Nafessa Williams) and there is immediate chemistry between the two. Of all the relationships in the movie, this is the one that plays the most genuine. It’s a pleasure to watch the pair develop as a couple. Whitney invites Robyn to a nightclub performance where she sings backing vocals for Cissy. The young women exchange glances during the show, making this something else to which Cissy can object.
But Cissy, who isn’t exactly mother of the year, has her own issues, including her stoner sons, as well as her rocky marriage to John (Clarke Peters). Meanwhile, Whitney and Robyn’s relationship is thriving, and they move in together.
However, Whitney’s life is about to change in a big way. Notorious comb-over queen Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) attends a performance where Whitney impresses him enough to have him sign her to his Arista Records label (also home to her cousin Dionne Warwick). If you aren’t distracted by the hairpiece, the interactions between Whitney and Clive are alternately educational and entertaining. As Clive grooms Whitney to become “America’s Sweetheart,” we see how it impacts her relationship with Robyn, who she has hired as her creative assistant.
The Houston parents are none too thrilled with that arrangement and make every effort to drive a wedge between the women. The scene where Davis plays Houston the demo for "I Wanna Dance With Somebody” takes on particular resonance, as she personalizes the song’s message being about someone who wants to “dance” with somebody, but isn’t permitted to do.
As Houston’s fame begins to soar, it starts to take a toll on her. A chance meeting with Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) allows her the opportunity to present a “straight” life to the world, even as her Black fans turn on her because they consider her music to be too white. The ups and downs of her professional and personal (including motherhood) lives clash and her drug use increases to the point of destroying her ability to sing and perform. We all know how that ended.
It’s hard to believe that Kasi Lemmons, the same person who directed “Eve’s Bayou,” is responsible for this mess. The blame is certainly shared with screenwriter Anthony McCarten who attempted to pack a ton of shit into a two-pound bag. To be fair, “WH: IWDWS” isn’t the only recent musical biopic to suck. Both “Respect” (starring Jennifer Hudson) and the virtually endless “Genius” (starring Cynthia Errivo) didn’t do Aretha Franklin’s story any favors. Far from being a love letter to Houston, it’s more like hate mail. Blu-ray extras include a “Whitney Jukebox,” the featurettes “Becoming Whitney” and “Moments of an Icon,” deleted scenes, and more.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.