Monday, May 20, 2024

Spanning Whitney Houston’s signing with Arista Records in 1983 through her death in February 2012, the authorized musical biopic “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” has broad, nostalgic appeal – because who doesn’t want to take a break and listen to Whitney’s greatest hits for two-plus hours with period-perfect re-creations of music videos and performances?

Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) screenwriter Anthony McCarten deserves kudos for the logistical accomplishment of buying the rights to Houston’s life and music, but should have done more than pen a CliffsNotes version of the icon’s life. Similarly, Newton native and “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) and “Harriet” (2019) director Kasi Lemmons masters music-making montage, but it’s in the service of asking the audience to overlook the superficial storytelling.

Mixing archival footage with reenactments of stadium concerts, studio recordings, glimpses of breathless fans in the crowd and Houston’s home life, Lemmons maintains momentum while retaining a semblance of a coherent story. She also creates tension in heartbreaking scenes of calm when Houston teaches her daughter to swim, places bathtubs in the foreground – when the star was found dead, it was in a bathtub – or portrays the first meeting of Houston (Naomi Ackie) and her girlfriend/creative assistant, Robyn (Nafessa Williams).

We also see Houston reassure Robyn that she will not marry Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders); the marriage proposal follows.

Casting critics are fairly correct in that Ackie resembles Brandy more than Houston, though she nails Houston’s physicality and the transition from defiance to compliant woman in the scene after Brown’s proposal when, in her heightened emotional state, she rushes into traffic confident that her commanding presence will stop cars. Despite Ackie’s best efforts, she does not disappear and become Houston. As Robyn, Williams – who played the first black lesbian superhero in the series “Black Lightning” – never creates the impression of being controlling or minimizing, as has been alleged. Also in the mix is “Law & Order” medical examiner Tamara Tunie, unrecognizable as Houston’s mother Cissy.

The “spiritual father and daughter” scenes between Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) and Houston become the film’s heart. Tucci and Ackie are convincing as caring collaborators, and Lemmons lets them create an intimacy that’s lacking in most of the film. These fly-on-the-wall scenes conjure the awe of getting an exclusive peek behind the music’s magic, and without destroying it.

McCarten also learned from his mistakes in depicting Freddie Mercury by not pathologizing Houston’s bisexuality and struggle with substance addiction and exploitive men. And Houston’s performance at the 1994 American Music Awards acts as a pillar to prioritize and convey the technical feats that Houston and her musical director, Rickey Minor (Dave Heard), achieved.

Houston’s life and career deserved a better script with more heart and nuance. That aside, Lemmons and her cast succeed in evoking the memory of a legend gone too soon.

  • “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is at Apple Cinemas Cambridge, 168 Alewife Brook Parkway, Cambridge Highlands near Alewife and Fresh Pond and AMC Assembly Row 12, 395 Artisan Way, Assembly Square, Somerville.