You can probably guess what went through Clint Ramos‘ mind when he was hired as the costume designer for the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect.” “It was one of disbelief and then just sort of like the gargantuan task of just following that life and that narrative arc of what is arguably the biggest musical star of the 20th century. So I think that was overwhelming,” Ramos tells Gold Derby during our Meet the Experts: Film Costume Design panel (watch above).
Starring Jennifer Hudson as the icon, “Respect” is a decades-spanning biopic, covering Franklin’s life from when she was a 10-year-old child in 1952, the middle of three daughters of famed Baptist pastor C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) to her rise to global fame, and culminating with the recording of her live double album “Amazing Grace” in 1972. Away from the spotlight, Franklin struggled with alcoholism and domestic abuse at the hands of her first husband and manager, Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
For Ramos, a Tony winner for “Eclipsed,” he preferred the challenge of designing Franklin’s private life over recreating her famous public moments that everyone knows. “I found the excavation more exciting. She was not heavily photographed before the Columbia years, so I had to create that world in a way with Liesel Tommy, our director, so for me it’s more exciting to conjure up what that interior world is and I think that’s where costume design shines,” he explains. “It’s a method of storytelling, conjuring up this human being. I get consumed by that. The pretty gowns — it’s a science. You figure out what the effect is and you go through the making process of it, but there is an anchor to what you’re trying to do. But what she wore when she was down and out, her daywear when she was going through the abuse from her husband, all of that — what was she wearing? It brings us to sort of the magic of clothing and why we put on what we put on on a daily basis. What are we trying to say?”
As for those public moments, such as Franklin’s Madison Square Garden concert in 1968 or her recording of “Amazing Grace,” the biggest challenge for Ramos was the scale of the scenes, outfitting dozens of extras and background artists. But he also did not try to make a direct replicate of Franklin’s costumes. For one, Hudson is taller than Franklin, and Ramos wanted to tweak the dresses so it would still be unique to Hudson in her interpretation of Franklin.
“The [“Amazing Grace”] documentary had just come out when we started prep so I think it was fresh in people’s mind. I wanted to tweak it a bit so Jennifer had ownership of it. The color’s a little different, the cut of the caftan is different,” Ramos says. “It closely resembles what Aretha more. We clearly played with the scale so Jennifer, who is much taller than Aretha, looked in scale. But then it was actually looking at the documentary, which was really helpful, and replicating all of those characters and the film crew and what the family. It was looking at that making sure we got all of that right because that was the only way I felt to honor that particular scene. And when we shot that, it was church. Jennifer sang like so many songs for so long. And Liesel and Kramer [Morgenthau], our director of photography, just kept on shooting. It was literally church.”
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