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It’s a daunting feat to recreate the renowned moments of an icon, but that’s exactly what the cast and crew of the latest Whitney Houston biopic I Wanna Dance With Somebody—in theaters now—took on. Like many biopics before it, the production required extensive research into the star’s life. So it was imperative that production designer Gerald Sullivan and his team leave no available resource untapped to bring the film to fruition—from analyzing video footage of Houston’s performances to working closely with her friends and family, including her sister-in-law Pat Houston and her record producer Clive Davis.
While Houston’s story is grounded in New Jersey, the majority of the production was actually filmed in and around Boston with some scenes filmed in Los Angeles. The music videos that were recreated include "How Will I Know," "It Ain't Right," and "Run to You." Among the live performances that were recreated are her performance at the now defunct Manhattan nightclub Sweetwater’s, where Houston first met Davis; several stops on her Bodyguard World Tour; The Concert for a New South Africa; and her performance on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2009 (to name a few!).
“For each of these performances, we researched the venue layout and size in great depth and then gathered all of the video footage we could find,” Sullivan tells House Beautiful. “Sometimes we would go as far as obtaining the architectural plans for the venue and/or the stage designs of her tour shows.”
Houston’s houses—her childhood home and her own New Jersey mansion—were crucial locations to showcase. “We researched and found many photos of Whiney's childhood home, both the interior and exterior,” Sullivan says. “We scouted many homes in suburban Boston until we were able to find an almost perfect match. We altered the exterior and interior to match the original.”
The New Jersey mansion, where Houston married Bobby Brown in 1992, was a bit harder to tackle because it is “quite unique with its curvilinear floor plan,” Sullivan says. “As we were relegated to filming in the Boston area, we immediately knew we would not find a matching house, so we were looking for the same feeling of opulence. We found a contemporary neoclassical mansion with the voluminous feel we needed. It worked perfectly for the scenes we wanted to capture during that period of Whitney's life.”
Another pivotal set in the film is Davis’s office. The record industry executive had three offices during the time he worked with Houston. Sullivan and the production team chose to build his first office, which he initially signed Houston in, that showcased dark wood wall paneling and midcentury modern furniture. “It has a very late '70s feel that we loved,” Sullivan says.
But perfecting the set meant going beyond just the room: “Clive had an incredible collection of stereo equipment, photographs of many of his proteges, and an ever-growing collection of gold and platinum records," says the designer. "We recreated all of these, adding more for each period we see the office, addressing each period authentically.”
Other notable set design details in the film include Houston’s actual travel beauty kit that Sullivan says is “the size of a kitchen table” and made of “black leather with stainless steel details on its own set of casters.” Inside, it had everything she and her team used on tour. Her travel chair is the only other personal item the team had access to and featured in the production.
In the background of Houston’s studio recording sessions, you can also spot a teddy bear. “This was a replica of the one she brought to each of her recording sessions,” Sullivan says. “Another classic Whitney detail was to see Fruity Pebbles cereal in her first apartment— research informed us these were her favorite and always close by.”
In Los Angeles, filming took place at the Beverly Hilton, where Houston spent her final evening. “We did not film in the actual room, suite 434, as it had been altered and redecorated years ago,” Sullivan says. Instead, we recreated it on stage exactly how it was when Whitney stayed there.”
Whether you're a longtime Whitney Houston fan or simply curious to see how her iconic moments and the places she frequented were recreated for this biopic, it's certainly worth a watch. Catch it in theaters, pre-order it through Prime Video, or hold out for the movie to hit Netflix.
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