Plot points are raised and dismissed so jarringly that it feels as if the movie had been torn to shreds in the edit, with all the connective tissue sitting on the cutting room floor. That’s a shame for star Naomi Ackie, who gamely embodies Houston’s luminous star power, sharp spunk and, later, world-weary disillusionment. Yet McCarten’s script, which was approved by the Houston estate, never gives her the room to truly inhabit the Grammy-winning hitmaker.
McCarten starts by echoing his similarly banal screenplay for 2018’s Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and opening with a tease of a famed performance — in this case, Houston’s medley at the 1994 American Music Awards. (It was Queen’s 1985 Live Aid set in “Rhapsody.”) After that, the story flashes back to 1983, to touch on Houston’s gospel-choir roots and tough-love tutelage from her mother, soul singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie), and it’s off to the races.
Within 15 minutes, Whitney is inking her first record deal. A couple of scenes later, she’s wowing on “The Merv Griffin Show” and fully transformed into the chart-topping vocalist we all know. Along the way, there’s scant exploration of Houston’s musical instincts or what made her tick as an artist. It’s an unfortunate oversight: By centering its focus on her status as “The Voice,” as she was nicknamed, the movie flattens Houston’s tale to one of mere God-given talent and industry nepotism.
The thin portrayals extend to the supporting cast. As new jack swing pioneer Bobby Brown, Houston’s husband for 14 turbulent years, Ashton Sanders strains to humanize a figure painted as comically insufferable. Stanley Tucci fares better as Clive Davis, imbuing Houston’s longtime record producer with his usual charm and warmth, though he does get saddled with some brutal exposition.
When “I Wanna Dance” poses the conflicts that complicated Houston’s livelihood, it’s almost as if the movie gets restless and hits “skip” mid-track. The film presents Houston and Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams), her longtime friend and assistant, as young lovers driven apart by the singer’s public image — even recasting the song “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as a symbol of Houston’s queer longing — before brushing that storyline aside. The discourse around whether Houston was selling out and turning her back on the Black community is boiled down to two paltry scenes. Her fertility struggles, including her miscarriage while filming “The Bodyguard,” are similarly glazed over. Only Houston’s fraught relationship with her father (Clarke Peters) and her substance abuse issues are deconstructed in real depth.
Curiously, the hair and makeup team puts little effort into making any characters look their age — aside from Tucci’s gradually disappearing hairline — as the timeline spans three decades. Houston was approaching 50 when she died of an accidental drowning, but Ackie never looks a day older than the actress’s actual age of 30.
As for Houston’s death, which was tied to heart disease and cocaine use, Lemmons handles the difficult sequence with grace. In the movie’s final moments, the filmmaker captures the tragedy of a generational genius undone by her demons. But until that point, there’s little texture to this musical mosaic. It’s like listening to the rousing highs of a greatest hits album — with, unfortunately, just as much narrative coherence.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains strong drug elements, some coarse language, suggestive references and smoking. 146 minutes