[Screen It]


(2022) (Naomie Ackie, Stanley Tucci) (PG-13)

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Drama: A young singer must contend with shooting to superstardom and all that comes with that, including various strained relationships with those in her life.

It's 1983 and Whitney Houston (NAOMIE ACKIE) is a young woman who sings backup in the band fronted by her mother, Cissy (TAMARA TUNIE), and has a girlfriend in Robin Crawford (NAFESSA WILLIAMS). When Arista head Clive Davis (STANLEY TUCCI) hears Whitney sing, he's blown away and immediately signs her to his label, with her father, John (CLARKE PETERS), serving as her business manager and Robin as her creative director.

As her star rises and she longs to have a family, she starts seeing men, including hip hop artist Bobby Brown (ASHTON SANDERS). But despite her track record of number one hits and resultant fame, she must contend with strained relationships with some of those in her life, as well as the pressures of being famous and non-stop work, all of which results in her turning to drugs for an escape.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

When it comes to musical acts -- be they solo artists or bands -- there are those where you'll buy everything they release. For others, you might buy one or more albums, but not their entire library. And then there are those where you appreciate some of their music but never intend to buy anything, and the rest where you'd rather have hot coals placed in your ears rather than listen to another note of what they offer.

In that regard, Whitney Houston fell into the appreciate but never buy category. I liked some of her music -- and there's no denying the power of her voice -- but not enough to consider owning it. Thus, some diehards fans would -- and probably will -- argue that I'm not the right audience for a film about her. Perhaps, but any film should be able to stand on its own regardless of one's familiarity with or fandom of the subject.

That said, my reaction during and immediately following our press screening of "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody" was just sort of "meh." Yes, the music is good as are the various performances. But just like I wasn't surprised by the singer's untimely death in 2012 after years of personal issues and drug abuse, nor was I regarding what the nearly two-and-a-half-hour film did in telling her tale.

And that's because it follows the same artistic trajectory of films about so many other similar artists whose meteoric rise to stardom also meant burning out like a falling star where no wish could save them from the seemingly inevitable, including the demons plaguing them.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons from a screenplay by Anthony McCarten, the film begins in the pre-stardom phase of the subject's life. It's then that we meet Whitney (Naomi Ackie) performing the lead in a church choir song where her professional singer mother, Cissy (Tamara Tunie), gives her "the eye" during the song and then a bounty of constructive criticism about the young woman's technique. But she knows that her daughter has what it takes, and if just the right break could occur, she might make it to the big time, unlike dear old mom.

That opportunity arrives when a man brings Arista head honcho Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) to hear Whitney perform with her mom and their band. But when Cissy spots Clive in the audience, she suddenly develops a case of faked throat issues and informs Whitney that she'll be singing the lead parts, with the latter unaware of who will be watching her. The young vocalist blows him away and he quickly signs her as his new act and it's not long before she's performing on The Merv Griffin Show.

That's followed by the succession of number-one hits, singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, and starring and singing in the movie "The Bodyguard." At the same time, she meets hip hop artist Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), a development that doesn't sit well with her best friend and former lover, Robin Crawford (Nafessa Williams), while Whitney also clashes with her father, John (Clarke Peters), who, despite saying otherwise, doesn't always have her best interests in mind as her business manager. All of which eventually leads to exhaustion and turning to drugs as an escape.

Lemmons deploys some shaky cam footage apparently in hopes of making audiences feel like they're there in the room for all of that. But the biggest issue -- beyond things feeling a bit rushed even with the two-plus hour runtime -- is that this is just another by the numbers biopic about a talented and ultimately doomed artist.

Had this been the first of its kind, I might have reacted differently. But like her music, I appreciate what's present, but wouldn't spend money on it. "Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Posted December 23, 2022

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