Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody

In summer of 1985, I was working at a small-town radio station in Shelbyville, Indiana, when I played a new song called “You Give Good Love.”  It was a mid-tempo pop/soul ditty by a newcomer by the name of Whitney Houston.  I didn’t give the song much thought.  It was your basic mid-‘80s song by a female singer with a decidedly superior voice to that of Madonna, but the song was merely average.  I liked her follow-up hit, “Saving All My Love for You” better.  The song was more singable, and this Whitney gal showed off some pipes in this one.

That was followed over the winter by her first dance song, “How Will I Know,” which was fine, but a very derivative 1980s dance-floor number – highly electronic, and lacking the true “soul” sound of the 1960s and ‘70s dance hits.  But then in spring of 1986 came her first classic – a remake of a long-forgotten George Benson ballad called “The Greatest Love of All.”  I liked the message of loving oneself before love can be given to another.  But that voice!  Oh my, it was heavenly and beautiful.  Who was this Whitney Houston – unknown less than a year earlier, and who subsequently scored four straight top-three hits?


I learned she began singing in church.  Her mother was accomplished gospel singer Cissy Houston, who sang with the Sweet Inspirations.  Her aunt was the great Dionne Warwick, who had a long string of 1960s hits written by Burt Bacharach, and was still recording hit records herself in the mid ‘80s.  She was a distant cousin of opera star Leontyne Price.  Music was in her blood, and boy did her talent come through in her music!  Her seven consecutive #1 hits in the 1980s is a record which remains unbroken.

Movie career

In the 1990s, Houston parlayed her talent to the movies, starring in “The Bodyguard,” “Waiting to Exhale,” and “The Preacher’s Wife.”  It was the 1992 film “The Bodyguard” which gave her the biggest hit of her career – a remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”  Houston’s version remains one of the biggest hits of all time, and is considered one of the iconic recordings in music history.  Her voice was so compelling people couldn’t simply listen to “I Will Always Love You” in the background.  Conversations would stop as people would hear Houston’s voice soar above the orchestral arrangement.

Drug addiction

But things went awry in Houston’s life.  Her 1992 marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown culminated in a drug addiction she was never able to break.  In 1999, she released her first non-soundtrack album in years.  But her voice was gone.  Some of the songs were nice, but she would never regain that powerful, commanding voice she possessed during the early years of her career.  In 2012, Houston drowned in her bathtub, the result of an overdose of cocaine.

Motion picture biopic

It’s one of the saddest stories in music history, and it almost begs for a major motion picture treatment.  Sure enough, a decade after her passing, Kasi Lemmons (“Harriet”) has given us “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” a biographical account of the rise and fall of one of the greatest voices ever to grace the grand stage of American music.

Wise choice

In a wise choice, Lemmons tasks the lead performance with a relative unknown – British television actress Naomi Ackie.  Much as with Taron Egerton in “Rocketman” or Austin Butler in “Elvis,” it’s always best to star an unfamiliar actor or actress in the role of an exceedingly famous person, to prevent audiences from seeing the famous actor in the role of the icon.  (The exception to this rule was Spike Lee’s decision to cast Denzel Washington in “Malcolm X.”  Washington was so convincing many people thought they were watching actual archival footage of the slain civil rights leader.)

Ackie is fine as Houston, but I do not know if she sings her own material.  Since no one can replicate the raw power and emotion of Houston’s voice, I’m assuming Ackie’s singing is dubbed by Houston, but I am not certain.  Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) is Bobby Brown, and veteran character actor Stanley Tucci is record producer Clive Davis.  The best supporting performances are Tamara Tunie as Whitney’s perfectionist mother Cissy, and Clarke Peters as Whitney’s demanding and self-centered father.

Unwise choice

In an unwise choice, (long before Lemmons was attached to this project), the producers chose Anthony McCarten to pen the screenplay.  McCarten is responsible for the excellent recent films “The Theory of Everything” and “The Two Popes.”  But he also wrote the uninspiring “Darkest Hour,” a Winston Churchill memoir which featured a brilliant Oscar-winning performance by Gary Oldman, but little else.

In 2018, McCarten laid one of the biggest eggs in recent years when he penned the laughably bad screenplay for the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  It was a script so awful it made television disease-of-the-week fare look good by comparison.  It featured the line, spoken ever so earnestly by Rami Malek, “Mom, Dad, I think I’m gay” – a line which almost no gay person has ever used to come out to his parents.

Somewhere in the middle

My hope was “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” would reach the heights of “The Theory of Everything,” the biography of famed physicist Stephen Hawking.  My fear was it would drop to the cheesy depths of “Bohmeian Rhapsody.”  Guess what?  It falls somewhere in between, but it’s far more a miss than a hit.  “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” presents itself more as a long checklist of events, but never digs deeply into what made Whitney Houston tick, nor into the demons she wrestled with throughout her career.

Same criticism as “Bohemian Rhapsody”

That’s the same criticism I had of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  There is an interesting scene in which Mercury produces the pseudo-opera middle section of the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but nothing about the mysterious lyrics.  What was the meaning of those lyrics?  Was Mercury foreshadowing the AIDS crisis?  His own death?  We’ll never know from watching “Bohemian Rhapsody.”  And we’ll never know what escape, or enlightenment, or expansion of the mind Houston was looking for during her drug-infused years – for the same reason.  Because McCarten simply doesn’t include it in his screenplay!

Surely there are enough living acquaintances who could have shed some light on what exactly drove Whitney Houston to succeed.  If not, McCarten should have gone for broke and invented something.  In other words, give us something.  Anything of substance!  If he’s wrong, someone will speak up.  And everyone will be talking about it.  Fifty years ago, author Erich von Daniken created waves when he released a documentary featuring a lot of incompatible scientific theory about UFOs.  “Chariots of the Gods” was rejected by almost the entire scientific community, but boy did von Daniken have people talking!

No revelations

By contrast, no one will be talking about “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” because there’s simply nothing here.  No revelations about anything.  I’m glad McCarten doesn’t shy away from including Houston’s lesbian relationship with her personal assistant, but even that friendship is never explored deeply.  Again, this is simply an account of the events in Whitney Houston’s life – and much as with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” they are often present out of order!


Part of me wants to suggest that this film should have been made as a documentary.  But then, even a documentary would seek to explore her innermost thoughts and feelings.  “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is a huge swing-and-a-miss.  For such a fascinating subject, our expectation is an equally inspiring film biography.  That’s not what we get here.  And that makes this film one of the big disappointments of this Oscar season.








Andy Ray‘s reviews also appear on https://youarecurrent.com/category/nightandday/film-reviews/.


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