Review: While the handful of performers in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” hold their own with the material they are offered, it’s frankly not enough for a film that’s 144 minutes long. At times, the film is quite brilliant, yet at others it is generic and frustrating.
Perhaps my least favorite microgenre populating the film industry today, the musical biopic just got another brand new entry that’s sure to bring in moviegoers and spark some interest within the community. The fanbase for these films seems so ripe and engaged that regardless of quality (either the laughably bad “Elvis” or “Bohemian Rhapsody” SHOULD’VE put down this style of filmmaking by now) there will more than likely be a warm response to whatever stomach churning real-life stories movie studios are willing to sell their soul to to put on screen. Needless to say, I did not enter the Whitney Houston-based biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” with high expectations.
And maybe it was the right call to enter with extremely low expectations because with a little sprinkle of luck, it’s not as bad as my worst fears had readied me for. I imagined a higher bar simply because the wonderful Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Harriet”) was behind the camera instilling her usual sense of emotion and weight, but I almost always struggle connecting with the typical storytelling beats and wistful pacing that musical biopics drench themselves in. When you’ve seen one of them, you can imagine that they all follow the same pattern.
And for much of the story, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” follows those same tropes. This won’t be a piece that offers much praise to a screenplay that this particular critic found shockingly trite and surface-level. To put it simply, imagine printing and tearing apart the front page of Whitney Houston’s Wikipedia page and clumsily taping it onto a new storyboard.
The saddest moments are barely developed, and the highlights are few and far between a narrative that offers one musical performance after another simply to bulk up its runtime. There’s not much story here, and in many ways it’s a “best of” hits compilation with an acting stand-in for one of music’s most irreplaceable stars.
Yet even with the expectations Naomi Ackie faces in recreating one of the world’s most wholly original personas and talents, she’s easily the standout. Every scene lives and breathes because of her and she’s one of the few performers that could’ve carried the gravitas of being Whitney Houston. She injects life into “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” the movie the same way Whitney Houston did with “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” the song.
Stanley Tucci delivers the most Stanley Tucci-like role ever and I couldn’t thank him enough for it. Not the most creative casting ever, but certainly an effective one and Tucci eats up scenery every time he’s on screen. Ashton Sanders does his best as Bobby Brown despite how little he’s offered in volatility as a role that barely gets off the tarmac – and the same goes for every other supporting character that doesn’t get much exposition or resolution in a film that plunders over the two hour mark.
But with every complaint that I have for “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and its formulaic, dreary story of a performer who deserves so much better, I couldn’t help but think back to my experience earlier this year with “Elvis” and how much I despised how that film was handled. And “Blonde.” And “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s hard to nail biopics of those that felt larger than life without feeling like you’re exploiting them – and while “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” doesn’t quite feel like a perfect ode to Whitney Houston, it shows restraint where these other ones never even considered.
There’s many choices in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” that don’t successfully work at a high clip, but in comparison to the horrendous other musical biopics produced by Hollywood within the last few years, it isn’t as infuriating and flawed. Naomi Ackie excels and the feeling of being in this world is enough to pull it along.