Thursday, December 22, 2022

Naomi Ackie dazzles as Whitney Houston

 As a biopic, director Kasi Lemmons’ Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody breaks little new ground. If you're familiar with Houston's story, you may not find many surprises. 
 Moreover, two  documentaries -- Nick Broomfield's Whitney: Can I Be Me and Kevin Macdonald's Whitney -- already have covered some of the same ground. 
  Happily, though, that's not the whole story. 
  Lemmons approaches the movie with an obvious love for Houston's work -- and a willingness to put plenty of it on display.
   I Wanna Dance With Somebody may not be a great movie but it boasts a terrific, star-making performance from British actress Naomi Ackie. 
   Ackie doesn't look like Houston but she projects the singer's undeniable power -- as an up-and-coming New Jersey kid, as an established star, and as a drug-addicted woman caught in a destructive celebrity spiral.
 Houston's voice was dubbed into the movie. Ackie may not be singing but she nails the songs as bravura performances. By the end of the movie, Ackie has so fully absorbed Houston's style that her work ranks as a memorable achievement.
   Of the supporting cast, Tamara Tunie has an impressive turn was Whitney's stage-mom mother; a stern Clarke Peters plays her controlling dad, and Stanley Tucci turns down the volume to portray Clive Davis, the record mogul who discovered Houston. 
   Written by Anthony McCarten, who also wrote Bohemian Rhapsody, which told the story of Freddie Mercury, the film samples Houston's off-camera life, including the developing conflict between Houston's husband Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) and her best friend and one-time lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Wiliams).
   Thankfully, Lemmons spares us the sight of an overdosed Houston who was found dead in a bathtub at a Beverly Hills hotel in 2012.  
   Lemmons sets us up for that scene near the movie's end but only implies it. Instead, she flashes back to a recreation of Houston's performance at the 1994 American Music Wards. Houston sings sang three challenging tunes: I Loves You Porgy, And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, and I Have Nothing.
    The scene becomes a statement about all that was lost with Houston's death. Lemmons allows Houston to write her own musical epitaph, and I Wanna Dance With Somebody brings Ackie to the spellbinding moment she's earned.

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