Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 2, 2023)
While I won’t dare to guess what acts as the first-ever “biopic” for a musician, I can say the format goes back many decades. The genre got a major shot in the arm due to the massive success of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
That one sent Hollywood accountants hearts aflutter and opened the door for more movies about fairly contemporary musicians. For a recent entry, we go to 2022’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody, a look at the life of the late Whitney Houston.
In 1983, we meet Whitney (Naomi Ackie), the child of musical royalty such as her mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie), cousin Dionne Warwick, and family friends Darlene Love and Aretha Franklin. As a 19-year-old, she develops a romantic relationship with Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) and also dabbles in drug use as a response to the toxic relationship between Cissy and her father John (Clarke Peters).
Whitney sings backup for Cissy but attracts high-powered attention when Arista record label chief Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci) hears her do lead vocals. This gets Whitney a recording contract and sends her toward superstardom, success that comes with plenty of pitfalls.
Dance may boast more producers than any other film in history. In addition to the 12 – 12! – billed producers, it boasts 24 executive or co-producers.
I mention this mainly to indicate a lot of ladles in this soup, a factor that feels likely to “dumb down” the final result. Also, since some of those producers include Whitney’s sister-in-law Pat as well as Clive Davis, I feared Dance would offer a totally sanitized experience. Heck, both Pat and Clive act as characters in the movie, a factor that one might assume would make the film safe as milk.
To my surprise, Dance manages more willingness to look at controversy than expected – well, to a degree. The opening 11 minutes or so reveal Whitney’s romance with Robyn as well as her early drug experiences.
This sets up a “warts and all” film that doesn’t quite come, though. At 11:30, Davis arrives at the club to hear Whitney, and her career becomes the real focal point.
Not that Dance turns squeaky clean, as it does continue to show light on the Whitney/Robyn relationship. We see the pressures Whitney experienced to date males and disassociate from the boyish Crawford. We also learn about her later drug abuse concerns.
While Dance doesn’t avoid Houston’s issues and controversies, it doesn’t dig into them either – or anything else, honestly. Through its 144 minutes, the movie covers roughly 30 years and it does so at a breakneck pace.
Such is the problem with biopics that attempt to examine a large span of years. With so much material to discuss, they inevitably become superficial and hurried.
Even so, Dance feels like it rushes way too quickly and barely gets into much of anything. We’re barely 11 minutes into the movie when Whitney gets her “big break”, so don’t expect much pre-fame backstory beyond the basics of a mom who rules Whitney’s world and a philandering, manipulative dad.
Once Davis signs Houston, one expects the usual “ascension to fame” sequence in which we see Whitney sell bajillions of records and turn into a household name – except we don’t. Oddly, Dance largely skips this aspect of her career even though it seems like a major story point.
Dance uses Whitney’s 1985-86 initial success mostly as an excuse to recreate the music video for “How Will I Know”. Before you can say “crossover hit”, the film leaps over this era to get us to Whitney’s second album in 1987 and the movie’s title song.
Which also shows up mainly as a reason to give us more musical material. This turns into an issue with Dance, as it often feels like a mix of song performances around which they cobbled a loose narrative.
Oh, we get the basics, though Dance seems to prefer to wallow in Houston’s misery. As implied earlier, I should find this refreshing since this means we largely avoid the sanitized version of the biography I expected.
However, Dance tends to devote too much energy to the “bad times” and not enough on Whitney’s successes. We witness some of her iconic performances – like her triumphant rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” at the 1991 Super Bowl – but outside of references to her massive fame and popularity, the movie rarely conveys the kind of positive energy one would expect.
Again, the ridiculously rapid pace at which Dance proceeds becomes the primary issue here, as events fly by at lightning speed. One minute Whitney meets Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders) and the next they’re a full-fledged couple, without any kind of “getting to know you” period.
Don’t expect Brown to get treated as anything more than a stock villain here, by the way. Popular culture tends to blame him for Whitney’s drug use and decline, but while their problematic relationship didn’t help, Whitney’s own demons led to these issues more substantially than did Brown’s presence.
Really, Houston’s time with Brown probably acted more as a symptom of her issues than a cause, but you don’t get much sense of that in Dance. Yes, the movie throws Brown a bone toward the end when Houston acknowledges that her drug use pre-dated her time with him, but given that this follows all sorts of footage that depicts Brown as a cad, it seems like too little too late.
Don’t view this as a real defense of Brown, though, as he certainly contributed to Houston’s concerns. Nonetheless, I don’t like the simplistic manner in which it depicts him – and everything else.
Though what should I expect from a movie that tears through Houston’s life at breakneck speed? Dance offers a rough outline of its subject’s life but delivers far too little depth to act as anything more than a frustrating overview.
Footnote: footage and images of Whitney show up during the end credits.