Inside Tracee Ellis Ross' Transformation Into a Pop Diva for 'The High Note' (Exclusive)
By John Boone
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Tracee Ellis Ross is following in the legendary footsteps of her mother, Miss Diana Ross, to the tune of a hit single, sold-out tour and award-winning discography. Admittedly, it's for her new music-industry comedy, The High Note, but the talent is on display nonetheless.
Ellis Ross plays Grace Davis, a renowned diva of the 1990s who is due for a reinvention, having not released a new record in a decade and instead been relegated to easy money gigs such as a potential Las Vegas residency. (Much to the disillusionment of her assistant, Maggie, played by Dakota Johnson.) Grace Davis may have the voice and icon status, but she is not an avatar for Diana Ross.
"I did not share any of this with her. I told her I got a big movie, but I did not tell her what the movie was and that I had to sing in the movie," Ellis Ross told ET. "I walked through that on my own and with a lot of tears with friends. And I understand there have been a lot of questions, like, 'Are you playing your mom in the movie? Is this movie inspired by your mom?' And the answer to that is no."
Grace Davis is a legend all her own, which required Ellis Ross to find her own sound, her own persona and her own diva behaviors. Ahead of The High Note's at-home premiere, ET phoned director Nisha Ganatra to discuss the ways Miss Ross did influence the character, recording original music and casting Diplo.
Was it always Tracee for you? Or what was the moment you knew Grace Davis had to be Tracee?
Nisha Ganatra: You know what? It always was Tracee for me. She's been such a wonderful comedic actress for so long, and I saw her do some really moving work, so I knew she could handle the emotional depth of the character. But also, who else but Tracee could bring us a real – ugh, this overused word -- authentic look into the life of a music icon? She grew up with one, with the music icon of all time.
The only dilemma was, can she sing? And even that, I was like, "Well, I have all the movie tricks we can do to make it look like she can sing." But when she came in the studio, Rodney Jerkins and I were just like, "Thank God. She can sing! Now we don't have to do all that movie magic. We can just record her and let her show the world her voice." That was really satisfying.
Tracee has said she felt some sort of way about singing for the first time, that she was probably as nervous about it as you were. Did you see that in her?
Oh, yeah. Tracee is not very quiet about her fears. [Laughs] She will lay them right out there for you. She was like, "I never let anyone hear me sing, not even my mom. Nobody has ever heard me sing." Actually, she debuted the single that we recorded on Instagram, and it was so sweet to see her mom sign on and write on the thing, you know, "I'm so proud of the baby." You're just like, "Oh my god, the Diana Ross is saying you are lovely and your voice is amazing." It was really sweet. I know she played the song for her mom in the car before she debuted it to the world. Like, can you imagine sitting in a car with Diana Ross and playing her your song?
I can't imagine being on an Insta Live and seeing Diana Ross in the comments.
Oh my god, and then Mrs. Michelle Obama showed up! We were all like, "What is happening on this live feed...?" [Laughs]
And Grace Davis is not Diana Ross. But Tracee having spent her life with one of the biggest legends of all time, does that influence who Grace became for you?
Absolutely. We used a lot of references. It was Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Madonna, Tina Turner. We pulled from all the biggest, biggest icons to make this character, Grace Davis, and pulled really specific things from each one of them so that she had a very clear idea of who she was and where she came from and wasn't doing an imitation of her mom. That would have been, I think, just disappointing for everybody.
Did you get to hear some good Diana Ross stories, though, through this process?
Oh my god, yes! But one of the most special things was Tracee took all of us to Vegas to watch her mom's concert and then meet her backstage. So we were in the audience watching Diana Ross and I'm, of course, watching Tracee watch her mom and watching Tracee sing from the audience along with her mom to all of her songs and dancing. It was such an incredibly insightful moment. Once you see Tracee Ellis Ross in the audience singing along to her mom, Diana Ross, onstage, you understand everything. It all becomes really clear.
Walk me through the process of actually recording the music. Where do you start finding the sound of Grace Davis?
You start with the most amazing music supervisor in the world, Linda Cohen, and the most incredible music producer, which is Rodney Jerkins. We also had the incredible team of Universal Music with us, who are behind the biggest movie soundtracks -- Pitch Perfect and Trolls -- and they got us a bunch of demos and we just listened to thousands of demos. Then we met Sarah Aarons, and everything really clicked together for what the movie would sound like.
Luckily, we got to record everybody live on set, but the process of producing an album and then making a movie to record that album at the same time was really intense and definitely way more work than a non-music-driven movie. And because we had such beautiful needle drop songs -- like Aretha [Franklin] and Donny Hathaway and Lee Moses, all these iconic, huge hits -- I didn't want the other songs to sound too similar because it would've just been like wallpaper. So, it was really tricky to find music that fit with those big, iconic hits but didn't compete with them and also didn't take away from them.
The music you ended up with is so good. It sounds like real music, if that makes sense.
It really does. A lot of that I would attribute to the main songwriter of the movie, Sarah Aarons. She's just this dynamite hitmaker. You listen to the radio and hit song after hit song after hit song, it's Sarah Aarons. She came in and gave me three demos right off the bat. I listened to them and she called me and said, "Which one do you like?" And I was like, "All of them!" [Laughs] Not only that, but I said, "I'm looking for this kind of song for this moment with this feeling," and the next morning, she said, "I wrote something last night." And that song was "Like I Do."
I asked Rodney if he could make this song a duet, and he produced it into a duet and Tracee and Kelvin [Harrison Jr.] sang it, and we all just got the chills. I was like, "Yeah, that's how I want to end the movie." It was also a tricky thing, to make it feel like there weren't three endings and to cram in the three most amazing songs. You get "New to Me," "Like I Do" and "Love Myself" all the way at the end of the movie.
As Grace's entourage, you have Ice Cube, though he's an actor in his own right now. You also have now-noted thespian Diplo in there. Were there other real-life music figures you gunned for, even if just for a cameo?
Yeah, there definitely were. I mean, Diplo is such a sport and such a huge get. He's so funny. I called him to show him the final film and he's like, "How's it going? You think I'm going to get an Oscar?" And I said, "I don't think so, Wes. I don't think they give Oscars to comedies." And he was like, "Ahh, good point. All right, should we do a drama?" And then he proceeded to pitch me a movie where he is Mozart and The Rock is Beethoven. And I was like, "And Kevin Hart could be Salieri!" And he was like, "Who that?" I was like, "Never mind." [Laughs]
Who were some of the people you campaigned to get in?
I don't know if I can say. Really once we had Ice Cube and Diplo, it was an embarrassment of riches. It's also a really big roll of the dice if these singers can act. Some singers are brilliant singers and then not the best at the acting side. Ice Cube is just such a golden treasure in that way. He is one of the funniest people I've ever met. Everything out of his mouth is so specific and so funny and so from a point of view you would never expect. He really brought this character to life. It's kind of been a trope -- the manager is looking out for money -- but I think because Cube's 30 years in the music business and experience with shady ass managers, he really got to give these people he's run into a run for money in this portrayal. I think he had a lot of fun getting back at some people.
You did Late Night about a woman of a certain age being edged out of late-night television. Now, we have The High Note about a woman in music not getting her proper due. How are you going to complete this trilogy? Where do we go next?
Maybe it should be all the women getting all of their due and no more being aged out. No more ageism or sexism! Maybe just complete this circle with diversity being not an issue, but actually a huge plus for everyone.