THB #285: Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody
One of the craziest mainstream movie experiences of the year for me.
As it turns out, Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody is not really like any of the musical biopics we have seen in recent years. In fact, it’s something I have never seen in a major motion picture. It’s a jukebox musical movie.
If you know or care, this is the Pat Houston take on the Whitney Houston story. Pat is her sister-in-law, who is very controversial in some Whitney circles. But her influence means that we get the full lesbian take on Whitney’s history and less blame on Bobby.
In any case, the movie has this weird energy of brilliantly recreating mostly familiar moments of Houston’s life and career… but also not being quite what the real thing was. Naomi Ackie doesn’t quite have the remarkable face of Houston, from those great but not over-pronounced cheekbones to the deep eyes to that giant mouth and those white teeth that makes Julia Roberts seem average. This is not to say that Naomi Ackie isn’t beautiful. She’s just not Whitney. That is one of the reasons why Whitney was so singular.
Ackie’s singing is obviously not the same, which is, again, not to say that it isn’t quite good. Apparently, they mixed and matched real Whitney Houston performances in with Ackie’s vocals throughout. Though she belts, Houston had a softness to her voice while she was doing it… which is one part of what made her so singular as a singer. Ackie’s voice is just a tone lower than Houston’s real voice, so she works a little harder and it makes a difference. If you look at the real performance by Whitney Houston, for instance, at the AMAs, there is something spontaneous that is just tough to match in a movie performance. It’s why some live performers are so great.
But the whole movie is exactly what the experience of a jukebox musical is. The performers do mostly the same classic charts the audience knows coming in, but they aren’t trying to recreate the exact performances of the originals. Whether it’s The Four Seasons or 3 Chers or Tina or whomever. It’s homage, not a perfect imitation. But film is literal in a way that theater is not.
Having seen 5 or 6 Whitney Houston documentaries, including the one produced by Pat…
… I know the story and variations of it pretty well.
I found myself endlessly frustrated by the way director Kasi Lemmons jumps around, cutting within sequences to jump forward in time and then back and then forward again…. until I decided to stop caring and take the ride.
There is a sequence when Whitney’s dad, acting as her manager, gets an envelope, opens it, and just starts handing out credit cards to everyone in the office. Insane. Silly. But it was like a musical where a character walks through and does something in an overly broad and showy way… but that will pay off later in the show. And indeed, John Houston’s mishandling of Whitney Houston’s money will become a theme later. But in its own moment, it’s comedic… in the bad way.
The movie really doesn’t intellectualize much of anything. It’s all flourishes. And it just keeps leaping from one eventful moment to the next. Why did she do the amount of drugs she did? This movie doesn’t really have an opinion. She makes some excuses, but no speculation here.
What happened to her voice? Unclear. The TV show with Bobby… not here. How much money disappeared and why and how? No. Just the fact and some disappointment in people she trusted. The tension between Bobby Brown and Robyn Crawford? Flare-ups only. Did her parents care that she was gay? Did they understand what being gay was, aside from bad for her image in dad’s mind? No idea. Is Dionne Warwick anywhere to be seen here? No.
Even the most chatty character, Clive Davis, played by Stanley Tucci, is mostly a cypher. He has some terrific dialogue. But really, his character is about a thin as a piece of sheet music.
Much of the content is just slammed in between the dozen or so musical performances in the film. It’s not that it’s not well done or not informative, but it’s not the real meat of this movie. It’s about those recreated performances.
And I don’t know that this matters.
The song, “Home,” is sung and referenced multiple times. The song comes from stage musical The Wiz, made famous by Stephanie Mills in 1974. (I listened to that album scores of times as a kid.) But given the time frame, maybe Whitney Houston connected with it from the 1978 film. What struck me was just that they somehow managed to make this choice for her television debut on Merv Griffin and never mention the context of the song or its history. Here, for your amusement, are the 3 versions of the song…
Did Whitney have any influences outside of her family? Don’t ask this movie. Did she love any other singers? (shrug)
This is the kind of movie that features a sequence of Whitney in a tub at a time when the audience knows she is not going to die. But the foreshadowing is surreal and not really addressed.
Then when we all know she is about to get in the tub and die, the film has a 10-minute performance sequence without explanation. Now, of course I understood what the filmmakers were doing there. But it’s a wild choice, really. It’s like getting to the end of Citizen Kane and not only showing the sled, but taking us through its manufacture and sale to Mama Kane for 7 minutes.
But I have to say… people were applauding in the movie theater in which I saw the film… multiple groups, multiple times for multiple performances.
And it’s not like I had a bad time. I just wish I could stop wanting to hear the singular crystal voice of Whitney Houston instead of a variation. I felt much the same was at the Cirque de Soleil LOVE show that is built on Beatles songs. I just wanted to get through at least half a song before cutting to another. For me, a big part of the Beatles is the twists and turns within many of the songs. Sorry… not in that show.
But that is not what this movie is. It’s a tribute band. A lot of good actors doing well. A lead who can sing. Interesting choices.
It is the best of films… it is the worst of films.
I can imagine this being a major cult film for many years to come… drag queens and others performing sections of the film before bursting into the diva’s greatest hits. Wild.
Is this thing on? Testing… testing… yeah… you can hear me, right?