I Wanna Dance with Somebody rightly celebrates its world-class subject, and when Whitney Houston’s voice is raised to the heavens, the movie soars.
There have been many attempts at capturing the rise and fall of the magnificent superstar since her tragic death in 2012, through documentaries and biopics. But it is director Kasi Lemmons’ film that manages to do it all.
Houston is played beautifully by the effervescent Naomi Ackie. She is so deeply invested in portraying Jersey girl Houston that you’ll think you’re watching the real thing. Her performance, lip-synched to perfection, brims with Houston’s star power and the raw feelings she brought to every song.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (he also wrote Bohemian Rhapsody) opens with Houston about to perform a career-defining live set at the 1994 American Music Awards, before rewinding to her early days. The film rejoins Houston as she hones her craft by singing backup for her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie).
Houston is then discovered by record mogul Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) while singing “The Greatest Love of All,” and thus begins her rise to fame.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Houston had more hit singles than the Beatles. Her songs are legendary – with tracks such as the aforementioned “Greatest Love of All”, “I Will Always Love You” and, of course, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”.
Lemmons captures the electricity of Houston’s music in the movie’s best scenes.
But, behind it all, Houston’s story has so many tiers: it’s a classic tale about show biz pariahs, families bilking their famous children, stars turning to drugs and alcohol, feeling used and abused. In the end, it’s the story of a woman, a mother, a sister and a friend who seemingly didn’t stand a chance against the forces clawing away at her soul.
The film refrains from showing Houston’s death, but parents need to know that viewers do see plenty of other iffy content as the film presents episodes from her life. As well as smoking and drinking, she also rolls up a dollar bill for snorting cocaine and lights a spoon in preparation for smoking crack.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody celebrates its subject, ending not with her tragedy but with her onstage in glorious song. Her mistakes didn’t make Houston unique; her talent did. Through her music, deployed here with volcanic force, that talent endures.
I Wanna Dance with Somebody, rated PG, plays at the Patricia Theatre from January 20 to 24 at 7 pm. Running time is two hours and 26 minutes.
Gary Shilling is executive director of qathet Film Society (formerly Powell River Film Society).