Naomie Ackie brings heart, soul, guts, beauty, talent and everything else she's got to playing a true vocal legend in "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," now in theaters -- where you should see it for the seismic experience in sound and image that Whitney Houston deserves.
Truth be told, Houston, who died in 2012 at 48, deserved a much better movie than this patchwork, cobbled-together biopic that takes 2 hours and 26 minutes to barely skim the surface of the professional highs and personal lows that made up her tragically short life.
But there's no denying Ackie, who is 30, British and so deeply invested in portraying Jersey girl Houston that you'll think you're watching the real thing.
Her performance, lip-synched to perfection, brims with Houston's star power and the raw feelings she brought to every song.
Ackie runs through such Houston hits as the title dance number, "The Greatest Love of All," "How Will I Know" and "The Bodyguard" soundtrack topped by "I Will Always Love You."
Houston's famous medley of "I Love You Porgy," "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I Have Nothing" that she sang at the 1994 American Music Awards closes the film on a note of pure euphoria.
When the Houston voice is raised to the heavens, the movie soars. It's when the music stops that the drama crashes to earth. Maybe that's because the film is authorized by Houston's family and co-produced by her mentor Clive Davis, played with droll with by Stanley Tucci.
Those involved in making the movie come off better than Whitney's ex-husband, singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), who Houston's gospel star mom, Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie, excellent), accused of hooking Whitney on a cocaine lifestyle, though the film strongly suggests that Houston experimented with drugs long before she met Brown.
The dark cloud of addiction that hovers over the film, directed by Kasi Lemmons ("Harriet") from a prosaic script by Anthony McCarten ("Bohemian Rhapsody"), is joyously absent from the early scenes of young Whitney singing in her mother's Baptist choir.
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There's also a sexual buoyancy to the scenes of Whitney with her close friend Robyn Crawford (a fantastic Nafessa Williams), who becomes a creative adviser over the objections of Whitney's manager dad, John Houston (Clark Peters), who insists that his daughter needs to serve her brand by dating young men, starting with Jermaine Jackson.
Ackie and Williams make such a frisky, playful pair that you feel the loss when Robyn is sidelined as Whitney's creative adviser and later pushed out by a jealous Brown, a serial cheater who exploits his wife's fame nearly as much as her father mismanages her funds.
Ackie seems as relieved as we are to play the early Whitney seizing her own growing power. Though she pressures Davis to put her in movies, she tosses the script of "The Bodyguard" into the trash, retrieving it quickly only when she learns her costar will be heartthrob Kevin Costner.
Houston had an instinct about what was right for her. And when she dressed in a tracksuit to sing the national anthem her way at the 1991 Super Bowl, star-spangled history is made.
"That's how you do it," says mom Cissy watching at home as Whitney brings down the house.
And what a kick to behold the newly self-possessed Houston take down a Black radio interviewer who claims that Houston's music is marketed to white audiences. The criticism stings. But Houston stings back by asserting her independence as a voice and as an artist. Yeah, that's how to do it.
For all its faults and reliance on cliches instead of fresh thinking, "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" rightly celebrates its world-class subject, ending not with her tragedy but with her onstage in glorious song.
Her mistakes didn't make Whitney unique, her talent did. And through her music, deployed here with volcanic force, that talent endures.