For better or worse, the last few years have been rich with major music biopics: Respect (Aretha Franklin), Rocketman (Elton John), and Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury), with the latter two even sharing a director. Now there’s a new biopic in town, and it also shares DNA with Bohemian Rhapsody through its scribe, Anthony McCarten. Yes, it’s I Wanna Dance With Somebody (dir. Kasi Lemmons), the latest Whitney Houston movie, premiering in theaters December 21, 2022 and starring Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Nafessa Williams, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, and Clarke Peters.
In the first trailer for the film, Ackie is lip-syncing for her life as the late, great pop star. One recognizes her through a series of iconic looks, like the robe of the church choir, the big ’80s hair bow in the recording booth, the glittering catsuit onstage, a glimpse of her wedding dress, the classic sweatsuit at the stadium to sing the national anthem. As for the actual acting, the trailer portrays Houston as glamorous, confident, and assured of her talent. “Look, I don’t know how to sing Black, and I don’t know how to sing white either,” she dismisses criticism of her music. “I know how to sing.”
The trailer promises the audience will “Discover the Whitney you never knew,” although it’s unclear what surprises this biopic could unearth about a woman whose every movement has been examined, both in life and death. The trailer doesn’t hint at a romantic relationship between the singer and her best friend Robyn (Nafessa Williams), which the real-life Robyn Crawford has opened up about in recent years. Nor is there any hint, underneath the gloss, of the destructive addiction that would eventually claim Houston’s life.
All of it is pretty well-trod territory. There’s certainly nothing wrong with creating a celebratory, rather than tragic, version of Houston’s life; regardless, the version the trailer presents feels like a Whitney we know pretty well. It’s even complete with the always welcome but undeniably familiar soundtrack of the real Houston’s voice, singing two of her biggest hits. The movie may still have some surprises in store, but given how used to the music biopic formula we are by now, it seems unlikely.