Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Whitney Houston Biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody Does Little Service to Her Legacy

It’s like a sip of diet soda falling just short of replicating its source, so that it only just reminds you of what it isn’t.

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Whitney Houston has been more publicly active in the decade since her death than it was for any 10-year stretch during her life. Since her fatal overdose in the Beverly Hills Hotel on February 11, 2012, the string of tributes and reexaminations has been unceasing. It’s as though we haven’t stopped mourning, as a culture. Or maybe we haven’t been allowed to stop.

From Jennifer Hudson’s tribute at the Grammy Awards ceremony the day after Houston’s death to the icon’s multi-hour homegoing ceremony (which aired on major cable networks like CNN and BET) to the ghoulish Lifetime reality show The Houstons: On Our Own (which started airing months after Houston’s death and depicted her daughter Bobbi-Kristina Brown grieving) to her mother Cissy Houston’s 2013 memoir Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss, and the Night the Music Stopped to the authorized 2018 documentary Whitney to that damn hologram, those officially sanctioned with preserving her memory have found no shortage of ways to do so. It was only a matter of time, then, before the official biopic dropped, and that time is now. Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody recently landed in theaters. The film’s producers include the executor of Houston’s estate, Pat Houston, is a producer on it, as is Clive Davis, the Arista label head who shepherded Houston to global fame.

Putting aside the obvious monetary incentive in keeping Houston’s memory alive for those who stand to profit, that there remains an apparent market for such material may speak to just how shocking Houston’s death was. Right before our eyes, one of the biggest stars of her generation took such a precipitous fall that even 10 years later, it’s hard to process completely. It’s the kind of story that would seem unrealistic if it were the product of someone’s imagination and, say, written as a novel. I Wanna Dance With Somebody is largely made up of objective facts, but it’s not so much lifelike as it is lodged in an uncanny valley that does little service to Houston’s legacy or interested audiences. While watching earlier this week, around the time that actor Naomi Ackie recreated Houston’s star-making turn on Merv Griffin’s show singing “Home” from The Wiz, which happens early on in the movie as it occurred before the release of Houston’s 1985 self-titled debut, I wondered what the point was of watching else someone lip sync Houston’s spellbinding vocal and mime her gesticulations, when it’s so easy to pull up the genuine video on YouTube.

Whitney Houston - Home | Live at The Merv Griffin Show, 1983 (Remastered, 60fps)

This problem comes up again and again in Dance, which relies on this kind of perfection-demanding mimicry. Ackie is game and sometimes nails her unenviable task (see how she’s trained her eyes to dart at exactly the same angles as Houston’s did in the “I Will Always Love You” video’s chair setup), but it’s still a facsimile, and Ackie is…not Whitney Houston. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) is similarly extremely competent at recreating entire tableaus from Houston’s oeuvre (the choreography of the “How Will I Know” video shoot is spot-on), and the effect is similarly jading. It’s like a sip of diet soda falling just short of replicating its source, so that it only just reminds you of what it isn’t. At best, Dance is the picture of so-close-yet-so-far disappointment.

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Dance is only at best sporadically, though. So much is crammed into its 146-minute running time that everyone involved only has space to show up and do, as it hurtles through some three decades of a packed life. You know you’re in shaky territory when a movie’s trailer proudly announces, “From the writer of Bohemian Rhapsody”—a modern go-to example of how not to frame a biopic. (That movie’s saving grace was Rami Malek’s performance—specifically his ability to project rock star during the musical sequences—and he was rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar for doing so.) Houston was so famous that anyone paying attention to her career has long known about, and for the most part watched happen in real time, the bullet points that Anthony McCarten’s terse scenes comprise.

There’s plenty to mine in Houston’s story that could make a compelling drama—a Pablo Larraín-esque, highly focused examination of a few days of Houston’s life, say when she finally split with her husband Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders with the insight of someone who watched, like, two of his music videos on YouTube on his phone on route to set), could work well. A script less beholden to the classicist conventions of Oscarbait biopics could have at least given everyone some room to breathe and some time to actually sculpt emotion instead of hoping that something, anything, is telegraphed via the fast-forward approach taken here. (That said, Stanley Tucci as Clive Davis is a true ringer, and the movie’s only one.)

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Dance rapidly shuffles through Houston’s rise to fame, the accusations of her music not being Black enough, the triumphs of the Super Bowl and The Bodyguard, the callousing effect the spotlight had on her outlook, her co-dependent relationship with Bobby Brown, her kinda-sorta comeback in 2009 with I Look to You, and her untimely demise. It’s so perfunctory, it’s as though having soul was never even considered as an option. At least the movie canonizes Robyn Crawford’s account of her romance with Houston, as detailed in her aforementioned memoir—it’s some kind of progress that Houston’s estate is co-signing the reality of her sexuality (at least, its reality when she was with Crawford—I don’t doubt that she had very real love and sexual attraction to Brown). And it’s occasionally amusing what bits Houston ephemera McCarten was able to shoe-horn in, like her irritated response to a dense interviewer (“Sometimes…that means some. Times.”), which has become a meme in recent years.

Whitney Houston / Sometimes. Always? Not always, no. Sometimes, that means some times

But again, why would you go to a theater to watch someone do an impression of this when you can just…watch the original? And for all the ground it covers, McCarten’s script is devoid of insight. The suggestion that drugs were Houston’s undoing, for instance, is too pat. Of course drugs played a major role, but they were hardly everything. Missing from this is a real look into Houston’s falling out with her fame, which was most prominently on display during Being Bobby Brown, the 2006 reality show on Bravo that marked a career nadir for Houston and yet shed more light on her life and mindset than virtually anything else she had participated in publicly. (Dance makes no mention of the series.)

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Out of all of the incredible things that this woman’s life encompassed, the one I think about the most is how bored of it she seemed well before her death. She was one of the most universally loved performers on the planet, with an objectively astonishing voice, and about as conventionally beautiful as a person can be. She could do anything and people would listen. And yet, by about 20 years into her career, she was so over it. People can get bored of anything, and Houston apparently taking her bounty of gifts for granted is proof. Perhaps unintentionally, Dance responds to this in a roundabout way—as a lengthy highlights reel, it’s actually never boring. If only Houston could have internalized what it all looked like at such a remove.