The script doesn’t sing, but Naomie Ackie sure can as The Voice.
In the biopic “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Naomie Ackie (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) stars as Whitney Houston, the singer, known as The Voice, who has won the hearts of millions, up until her death in 2012. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “I Will Always Love You,” “Where Do Broken Hearts Go,” and “Greatest Love of All” are among her biggest hits-the ones that really make people appreciate the finer things in black music, and leave iconic styles in any generation. But she can also be known as an actress with a breakout movie role like “The Bodyguard,” and a woman ambitious enough to become a drug addict.
Director Kasi Lemmons, in her first feature since “Harriet,” uses the right actress to bring out the humanity and voice of such a legendary pop icon, even if the writing by Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) is all over the charts. It’s a biopic that lives and breathes because of Ackie, who knows how to use her words and emotions. She can even sing like her without seeming so self-congratulatory about it.
The supporting actors also consist of Stanley Tucci as her record producer Clive Davis, who discovers her talents; Nafessa Williams (“Black Lightning”) as her friend and assistant Robyn Crawford, who sticks by her through thick and thin; Tamara Tunnie as her mother Cissy, who teaches her how to embrace her vocal chords; Clarke Peters as her greedy and homophobic father, who thinks her relationship with Robyn would damage her reputation and cares more about the money than being an actual father; and Ashton Sanders as her husband Bobby Brown, whose marriage to her has become a rocky one.
“I Wanna Dance with Somebody” lags in the screenplay, which seems to glamorize the paparazzi, autograph hounds, and the tragic moments in the late singer’s life. After all, it was written by McCarten, who did glamorize Queen in “Bohemian Rhapsody” way over the top. But unlike that bomb, which somehow became a massive financial and Oscar-caliber hit, this one seems to win us over with some of the high spirits and emotional weight of Whitney Houston. It wants to remind us about her drug addiction, and how she managed to make her way to the stop, despite the roads blocks put in front of her.
Likable supporting work also comes from Tucci, whose age and tone seems to almost match Clive Davis, and Peter, who does a better job at portraying a greedy father in this music industry than Giancarlo Esposito did in last summer’s “Beauty.” And the hospital scene when Whitney stands up to him couldn’t be more gripping.
The best music biopic of the year is Baz Luhrman’s “Elvis,” which knows how to stylize and truthfully tell the King’s story of music and drugs. But “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” still knows how to be entertaining for its own reasons. Ackie is able to expand her horizons, and Lemmons is able to help her out with that. Again, the screenplay could have been shorter and less flashy, but the performances and music are able to honor The Voice. May she Rest in Peace.