By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — There were many challenges for the filmmakers while creating the new Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,”. But none were as formidable as recreating her amazing performance of the Star Spangled Banner in Tampa Stadium for Super Bowl XXV in 1991. Even folks who usually cringe or avoid even listening to the anthem were spellbound by Houston’s extraordinary performance, one so magical it was even later issued as a separate single.
That is one of many magical moments in her career recreated in “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which debuted last week.
“We did lots of research,” production designer Gerald Sullivan told Variety. “We even got hold of the original architectural plans,” he added. The blueprints enabled the VFX team to rebuild the stadium virtually and even generated aerial shots. Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, stood in as a physical location, with the shoot taking place overnight in chilly November.
“It was like two in the morning,” Naomi Ackie, who portrays Houston in the film, said on explaining what made the scene so challenging. “She sings so powerfully, and it was really hard to pretend to reach that — because, obviously, she’s singing — but, still, to make it convincing. It was a very cold, long night, but we got through it at the end.”
Director Kasi Lemmons praised Ackie’s re-enactment of Houston’s movements, saying the actor came to set “completely prepared,” as usual, mirroring the “meticulous” preparation of the crew. “It’s not easy to wrap your head around the amount of work and preparation that she had to do, and then to be able to come to set a kind of release your preparation and you’re just in the moment; you’re just living and breathing Whitney Houston. It’s kind of a phenomenal achievement, and I was completely blown away.”
There was also another challenge: getting an audience.
“When you’re wanting to capture that much excitement, during COVID — this epidemic where you can have 150, maybe 300 people — you’ve got to move them around and plan clever angles,” Lemmons said,
The solution was this: “We’d fill parts of the stand, and the effects team would tile it around in the architecture.” The creative team knew the angles within both stadia were similar, the slope was a match, and the measurements of the football field had been the same “for decades.”
Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor Paul Norris and VFX producer Tim Field had worked together on “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and said that their previous experience served them well on this film.“We didn’t want to do the same again but expand on the visual effects we had done,” Field enthused, saying they started working on their plan from day one. “It led to nine months of development even before the film was greenlit.” The process began with capturing one extra in ten different costumes, giving ten different performances, multiplying them and developing a way to move the camera 360 degrees around them. “That allowed us to design really cool shots,” he explained. “It also meant we were free to be far more flexible in the edit to create shots where we could extend the plate photography.”
Recreating each performance involved capturing almost 200 extras. In post production, the Super Bowl and American Music Awards performances took the longest to complete, clocking in at around six months each.
Then they also had to include some archival footage. “I used the archive footage to work out the ratios of actions we needed for each performance,” he said. “As Daysha went through the edit, she pointed out where we needed to have more or fewer clappers if it was too busy or not busy enough, and so on.”The team also had to recreate the advertisements on the screens in the background of Houston’s performance. One was a campaign for local radio station Q105 that involved the slogan “Just Q It,” a play on Nike’s iconic “Just Do It.”
“I remember asking during one of the VFX reviews, ‘Shouldn’t that say, “Just Do It?”’ but it had to be exactly as it was,” Broadway explained. Norris added, “Even with the Marlboro and Coca-Cola logos, it was based on what was seen during the performance that day. It had to be authentic as possible down to the very last detail.”
“I Wanna Dance With Somebody” is now showing at theaters.