“Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” is an awkward title. Was Sony afraid the audience wouldn’t know whose biopic this was based on the song title alone, so they tacked on the singer’s name at the last minute? The result brings to mind “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” the brutally hilarious parody of biopics that should’ve rendered this tired sub-genre obsolete.
The latest from director Kasi Lemmons (”Harriet,” “Eve’s Bayou”) will likely serve as a post-Christmas-dinner movie, especially for Black folks. I don’t mean to imply that nobody else will see “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (henceforth “I Wanna Dance”). But this film operates on two levels: one for the general public, and another for fans in neighborhoods like Houston’s old stomping grounds of East Orange, N.J., fans who knew her nickname was “Nippy.”
Beloved by millions and graced with a stunningly powerful voice, Whitney Elizabeth Houston (played here by British actress Naomi Ackie, who reminds us of Houston’s full name several times) was a “barbershop conversation” kind of celebrity. That is, she inspired a lot of debate, some pro-Whitney, some con, most politically incorrect.
I envision my Black brethren walking into this movie with a checklist of things they hoped it would broach — but bet money it wouldn’t. I cop to having my own list, because nobody’s neutral about Nippy. At times, it’s as if “I Wanna Dance” was expecting a Black auntie’s level of scrutiny.
Here’s something I didn’t think would be covered: Houston’s lesbian relationship with her longtime friend, and personal assistant, Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams). There was always speculation and denial when Houston was alive, but in 2019, Crawford revealed their love affair in her memoir.
Things on my list I expected to see: Houston’s infamous Barbara Walters interview (nope, not covered here); some tiffs with then-husband Bobby Brown (plenty); re-creations of major performance moments (numerous, all meticulously staged); Houston doing drugs (handled discreetly); claims that Whitney sounded white (mentioned); and someone blaming Brown, played by Ashton Sanders, for Houston’s drug habit. In the film, written by “Bohemian Rhapsody” scribe Anthony McCarten, Houston says she doesn’t blame Brown for her addiction. Brown retorts he wishes she’d tell that to the media.
The best parts of “I Wanna Dance” are the early scenes where Houston is young, unpolished, and feeling her way through first love and newfound independence. Ackie is particularly good here, sparring with Houston’s famous gospel singer mother Cissy (Tamara Tunie) and looking at her father, John (Clarke Peters) with the reverence of daddy’s little girl.
Though she doesn’t really resemble Houston, Ackie successfully conveys how the singer stayed true to her roots. She always reminded her fans that she was still an around-the-way girl at heart, ready to scrap at the drop of a hat when provoked. Ackie also does a great job capturing Houston’s confident cadences when she spoke and her stiff moves when she danced. (The singer was once deemed “part of the rhythmless nation” on the TV sketch-comedy show “In Living Color.”)
Since no one can sing like Houston, Ackie credibly lip-syncs to her vocals, though press notes for the film indicate there are a few isolated moments where we hear the actor’s own singing voice — the scene where Houston practices with her mother, for instance, and at the beginning of her first solo performance at the nightclub where she’s discovered by producer Clive Davis.
Davis is played in an attention-grabbing supporting performance by Stanley Tucci. He anchors a cast doing the best they can with biopic clichés. Peters’s villainous last scene is a mustache-twirling travesty as written, but he sells it anyway. Tunie is scary fun as Houston’s stern yet loving mom. As the older version of Bobbi Kristina, Houston’s daughter, Bria Danielle Singleton is memorable in a few short scenes.
Boston gets a shout-out thanks to the area’s Marina Studios, where much of the film was shot, and other locations around the city.
“I Wanna Dance” is built to make audiences talk back to the screen. Just don’t expect anything too scandalous, as the film is produced by Pat Houston and Davis, both of whom want to protect Houston’s legacy. It’s refreshing that Lemmons focuses on the highs rather than the lows, even if it feels like buffing off the edges of her complex protagonist. But that won’t matter to Houston fans: They’ll get so emotional, baby.
WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY
Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Written by Anthony McCarten. Starring Naomi Ackie, Clarke Peters, Nafessa Williams, Ashton Sanders, Bria Danielle Singleton, Tamara Tunie, and Stanley Tucci. At AMC Boston Common, Regal Fenway & RPX, and suburbs. 146 minutes. PG-13 (drug use, profanity)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.