I want to feel hot…but I don’t.
Conversely, Whitney Houston’s new animated film “I Want to Dance With Somebody” left me shivering from a gust of arctic air as it clinically and lazily examines the famous singer’s tragic life.
Show duration: 146 minutes. PG-13 rating. In theaters December 23.
The incomparable Houston, who died in 2012 at the Beverly Hills Hotel of an accidental drowning due to drug abuse, deserves a real movie — not that cheap one you would have found on basic cable in 1998.
Naomi Ackie stars as Houston from her early days in 1980s New Jersey as the promising teenage daughter of Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunney), who is scouted by mega-producer Clive Davis (also a producer for that movie, as it happens) and quickly becomes a global star. With seven consecutive number-one hits – one more than the Beatles. Ultimately, we watch her succumb to hard drugs in order to protect herself from the pressures of fame and family. She died at the age of 48.
Oddly enough, Davis (Stanley Tucci) is a much larger character than Houston’s volatile husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders is usually excellent in a fixed part) and mom Cece. Audiences won’t show up expecting a Whitney/Clive double hand, but that’s basically what they get.
The film also delves into the later revelations that Houston was secretly bisexual. Early on as a rebel who refuses to wear dresses, she makes peace with her best friend Robyn Crawford, played tenuously by Nafsa Williams. The couple move in together, though the movie strays away from the bedroom.
As their relationship intensifies and Whitney desires to hire Robyn, her father and manager John—brilliantly portrayed by the alien from “Alien” by Clarke Peters—tell her, “Do you want my blessing? Go out on dates—with guys.”
Although upset, Whitney does as she asked, which leads to an unintentionally funny scene in which Robyn exclaims, “Did you sleep with Jermaine Jackson?!?” Then smash the dishes like at a Greek wedding.
Despite portraying her sexuality, kinda, the movie quickly drops the issue, either because the filmmakers didn’t know how to deal with it from there or because the estate preferred to keep things vague.
The same goes for drug use in Houston. The movie never makes it clear when she first started using cocaine or when it became problematic. Who gave it to her in the first place? You won’t find it here. Out of nowhere, she suddenly became a shaky, erratic addict.
Perhaps the filmmakers thought audiences wouldn’t want to confront any of those tough topics for long. So instead, they just go to the songs.
Several numbers are reconfigured, with a dumb move, from start to finish. Every second of “Greatest Love of All,” along with performances of “Home” on “The Merv Griffin Show,” “I Didn’t Know My Own Show” on Oprah and her mixes of “Porgy and Bess” and “Dreamgirls” At the 1994 American Music Awards, he was a hit. That’s about 20 minutes of screen time for those four tunes alone. Plus, we sample parts of the title track, “I Will Always Love You,” her performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, and more.
This movie feels endless.
Unfortunately, many of the musical sequences are pulled. The vocals are all actually Houston, but we never think it comes out of Aki’s mouth, like we did with Austin Butler in “Elvis” this summer, or during Live Aid’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” scene with Rami Malek. The actress, who doesn’t look much like Houston at first, lacks her energy and star power.
Outside of the disappointing musical moments, Ackie gives an acceptable turn…for a character other than Whitney Houston. This divine moment of impossibility, where the performer appears to transform into a beloved icon before our eyes, never happens. It’s just over half a decent impression.
However, it can only do so much by looking at Kasi Lemmons’ soft-focus direction (during songs, all she does is hypnotically move the camera in semi-circles in front of the stage over and over) and Anthony McCarten’s ghost-written screenplay by Siri.
There is certainly no artistry in McCarten’s script, which plays like a surprise PowerPoint presentation of major events and hit singles along with dialogue that takes your breath away. McCarten, who also wrote “Bohemian Rhapsody,” has been all over the place lately. On Broadway, he’s got “A Beautiful Noise,” a musical about Neil Diamond, and the new play “The Collaboration,” about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s Domino’s Pizza from this lifeless schlock and guarantees delivery within 30 minutes.
One day, there will be a movie keeping up with Houston’s immense talent, drive and complex and turbulent life. “I wanna dance with someone” is not that movie.
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