Street Date 2/28/23;
Box Office $23.68 million;
$30.99 DVD, $38.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for strong drug content, some strong language, suggestive references and smoking.
Stars Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Nafessa Williams, Clarke Peters, Dave Heard.
The Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody does a decent job dramatizing the legendary vocalist’s complicated relationship with superstardom, but the backbone of the film is its soundtrack of her greatest hits.
The film tracks Houston’s rise in the 1980s from singing in a church choir to putting out one hit record after another, and how she turned to drugs in the 1990s to balance the stresses of fame and family, which ultimately led to her unexpected death in 2012 at age 48.
Naomi Ackie delivers a sparkling performance as Whitney, whose career is depicted as having two primary influences. Her mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), a famous gospel singer in her own right, feigns a sore throat when she spots a bigwig producer in the crowd at her nightclub gig, forcing Whitney to sing in her stead. That producer, Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), ends up signing Whitney to a recording contract.
Her newfound fame causes friction in her personal life, as her father (Clarke Peters) is wary of her relationship with her girlfriend, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), and insists they be seen in public dating men. This sends Whitney into the arms of rapper Bobby Brown (Ashton Sander), kicking off their infamous marriage, much to the chagrin of Robyn.
Through it all, Whitney projects an image of America’s sweetheart, masking the descent into substance abuse began to destroy her talents.
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If something seems familiar about the proceedings, it may be because the screenwriter is biopic specialist Anthony McCarten, who is also responsible for the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. This film’s structure bears a striking resemblance to that one in the sense that they both make sure to depict the iconic moments everyone knows, and then fill in the gaps with behind-the-scenes tales, culminating in a faithful re-creation of a live performance considered by many as a career pinnacle.
In another odd bit of coincidence, the film’s director, Kasi Lemmons, is married to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who directed 2001’s Glitter, a widely panned A Star Is Born knockoff with some eerie parallels to Whitney Houston’s life, starring another “voice of a generation,” Mariah Carey.
For most movies about artists and musicians, the formula would include showing the elements of their lives that influenced their work, but since Whitney didn’t write her own songs, in I Wanna Dance we get numerous scenes of Davis playing song samples for her to decide which ones to make her own.
The songs played in the film are Whitney’s recordings, though Ackie does a nice job with the lip-synching. To further the emphasis on the music, the Blu-ray offers a “Whitney’s Jukebox” mode that just plays the scenes in which the songs are played. The Jukebox lets viewers jump to any song, shuffle them or play them in the order presented in the film, which equates to about 33 minutes of music.
The Blu-ray also includes six deleted scenes that run about eight minutes total.
Rounding out the home video extras are three making-of featurettes: The seven-and-a-half-minute “Becoming Whitney” focuses on Ackie’s performance; the eight-minute “Moments of an Icon” looks at the efforts taken to re-create some of Whitney’s most-famous performances; and the five-and-a-half-minute “The Personal Touch” looks at how Whitney’s friends and family were involved in the project.