I Wanna Dance with Somebody is a safe music biopic. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. The performances are solid, the music is lively, and anyone who loves Whitney Houston is inclined to at least like this movie. It just gives the audience exactly what they expect. The legendary singer’s story has already been told in documentaries like 2018’s Houston and other biopics like 2015’s Whitney. Even if you never saw those films, I Wanna Dance with Somebody goes down the music biopic checklist.
Tell me if these tropes are starting to sound familiar: the singer who develops a drug addiction, their two-timing spouse, the family member who’s been taking advantage of their wealth, several scenes recreating their most iconic performances, and ending text that reveals what happened after their inevitable downfall, usually paired with images of the real-life singer. To an extent, you can’t blame Hollywood for recycling this formula. Not only because it still sells tickets, but because numerous recording artists follow a similar career trajectory. It’s not an uncompelling formula either. Even before Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, though, people were catching on to these clichés.
The strength of any music biopic usually boils down to who’s playing the central figure. Naomi Ackie is perhaps best known to American audiences for playing Jannah in Rise of Skywalker. I Wanna Dance with Somebody provides a worthy leading lady showcase for Ackie, who elevates the by-the-numbers script. As Houston, Ackie primarily lip-syncs, but that shouldn’t be a knock against her performance. Matching someone else’s lip movements is a much more challenging practice than most people give it credit. Aside from escaping into the musical segments, Ackie delivers a physically impressive portrayal as we see Houston transform from a lively spirit to a withering addict.
The supporting players are equally well-cast. Stanley Tucci is tailormade to play Houston’s level-headed record producer, Clive Davis. The screenplay doesn’t give Houston’s husband, Bobby Brown, many layers, but Ashton Sanders avoids turning him into an SNL caricature. Clarke Peters and Tamara Tunie also turn in strong work as Houston’s parents. However, the focus should’ve been the relationship between Houston and best friend Robyn Crawford, played by Nafessa Williams. Although there were rumors that the two had been more than friends, Crawford didn’t confirm the sexual nature of their relationship until after Houston’s passing. I Wanna Dance with Somebody doesn’t erase this side of Houston’s sexuality, but it could’ve delved deeper. Aside from an on-screen kiss, there are few intimate moments between Houston and Crawford, most likely to accommodate the China release.
The film’s title, of course, derives its title from the pop song of the same name. Listening to the song, Houston says it’s about wanting to dance with somebody, but you can’t. This seemingly alludes to her relationship with Crawford, but the romantic tension is dropped halfway through the picture. The film might’ve been more intriguing if it had been told from Crawford’s perspective, exploring her feelings for Houston as they grew further apart. Had the filmmakers taken more chances, I Wanna Dance with Somebody could’ve been a powerful love story. Not just romantic love, but the love that drives friendship as well. Instead, Houston gets the traditional biopic treatment. Competently made, but it’s not one that you’ll always love.