How Respect Uses Design to Illuminate the Story of Aretha Franklin

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While scouting locations in New York City for scenes in Respect, the new Aretha Franklin biopic starring Jennifer Hudson, production designer Ina Mayhew realized that she, set decorator Sarah Carter, and their teams were going to be tasked with recreating one of the most recognizable rooms in history.

“The only crazy thing that came up at the very last minute was that I had to build the Rainbow Room,” Mayhew tells AD. “How could I forget about that set?”

She was at Radio City Music Hall, scouting the lobby, when she walked over to the Rainbow Room. “I hadn’t been there in a long time,” Mayhew recalls. “I was like, ‘Oh no, how are we gonna shoot there? This is all wrong.’”

“I couldn’t cheat the railings,” Mayhew says of the Rainbow Room recreation, “which were acrylic balls stacked on top of each other on a brass rod with very, very specific details.” Shown here is Marlon Wayans as Ted White and Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.

After closing in 2009, the private event space on the 65th floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan sat idle for five years. It reopened in 2014 following a floor-to-ceiling renovation. “They had updated it so much,” Mayhew says. “I was so disappointed.”

Intended to serve as the backdrop for a birthday scene, the Rainbow Room as it was in the 1960s would’ve still had many of the 1930s Art Deco elements it was known for. Attention to detail was absolutely nonnegotiable, and the task had to be completed in “like a week and a half,” according to Mayhew. Each day presented a new challenge. “We forgot about that detail—what about the floor?” she says, referencing the venue’s former revolving circle-shaped dance floor. “Do we have to lay the wood in that kind of crazy pattern?”

The Rainbow Room also had a striking curved staircase, where Aretha and her husband, Ted White (Marlon Wayans), make a grand entrance. Anything with a curve is very hard to build, especially in a few days and with carpet, Mayhew says. The issue there was to “understand how many steps there were, how the steps worked, and how it kind of tiered down to the dance floor.”

Skye Dakota Turner stars as a young Aretha Franklin and Audra McDonald as her mother, Barbara. For Barbara’s home, Mayhew used “a lot of teals, oranges, yellows, and pale greens,” she says. Set decorator Sarah Carter sourced fabrics from all over the country.

On a different coast, Mayhew brought Aretha’s Los Angeles mansion to life with essential midcentury designs, including an Adrian Pearsall sofa and chairs, an Isamu Noguchi-style coffee table, and a Florence Knoll dining table and credenza. “She’s taking what she learned from her father [played by Forest Whitaker], but she’s using her taste and going with the most hip, cool furniture of the time, all the Knolls, and all the Gucci.

A wallpaper enthusiast, Mayhew incorporated plenty of patterns in the film’s sets, “to give a sense of palate and texture to the world without it being prominent.” Some wallpaper existed in Aretha’s father C.L. Franklin’s (played by Forest Whitaker, right) real house, but she went “just a bit further” to define the walls and give a soft, subtle background to furniture.

Aretha’s art and decor during this period were just as showstopping: a William Bowie sunburst wall sculpture, a Frederick Weinberg piece, and an Andy Warhol portrait of her, the latter of which was a reproduction. “She’s showing off,” Mayhew says. “She has all her gold albums on the wall and the best of everything. She’s surrounded by beauty again, even though she’s not happy.”

“It was so great when some of the musicians came from Muscle Shoals to watch that particular scene and how they felt we reproduced it correctly,” Mayhew recalls. They were so impressed that they even asked to keep a couple set pieces. “And we were like, ‘Of course!’”
Mayhew reached out to the musicians, who sent over photos of what the studio looked like in the 1960s. “We did have a sense of the scale and grand plan,” she says. “But the biggest challenge we noticed was the soundproofing panels on the wall.” Here is an early sketch of the Muscle Shoals set.
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Another key set is the Muscle Shoals recording studio, which is where Aretha began formulating her unique sound and approach to soul music. It’s arguably where Aretha became Aretha as she is known as today. “We watched every single piece of footage we could,” Mayhew says. “The details I cared about were the wood trim, the color of the walls, the soundproofing panels covered in a textural fabric we were looking for, and the booth itself.”

Mayhew has shot a lot in Atlanta, so she’s familiar with the local churches. “We looked at a dozen churches maybe. We scouted so many churches, and that one we ended up with was definitely the best. It had the right tones and scale.”


Mayhew has shot a lot in Atlanta, so she’s familiar with the local churches. “We looked at a dozen churches maybe. We scouted so many churches, and that one we ended up with was definitely the best. It had the right tones and scale.”
Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert

They had to recreate certain components because some things simply “didn’t exist at all,” and had been out of production for decades. The boards, specifically, were made to match exactly as they were in the 1960s. “That was one particular set we really wanted to duplicate as closely as possible,” Mayhew says. “That’s not always the case for us. But this one, listen, you can’t cheat the Muscle Shoals recording studio—it was important to get right.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest