In feel-good romantic dramedy The High Note, Tracee Ellis Ross plays a larger-than-life pop diva who, at first glance, might bear more than a passing resemblance to her own mom, Diana. But Ross makes an impression all her own as Grace Davis, the singer who, after years of “greatest hits” albums and tours, yearns to make something fresh… and who can’t help but torture assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) with her celebrity neediness and diva antics. It’s The Devil Wears Prada with more music and more sun – the film is like a travelogue of L.A.’s finest vistas – and critics are applauding Ross’s wicked take on the boss from hell, who may just have a heart of gold.
The film was originally set to hit the big screen but will instead premiere on video on-demand following the COVID-19 outbreak. Ahead of its release, Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Ross to talk about her favorite movies, stepping into Grace’s diva shoes, and what it was like to release her first song.
Let’s start with Love Jones, which is just a classic. One of the first times I saw myself reflected on screen in a way – just a beautiful story, a love story that felt textured and layered and interesting and beautifully shot, with Black people in the lead positions. The music, all of it, just touched a deep place in my soul and was fantastic.
We will switch gears completely, and I will say the original Sabrina with Audrey Hepburn, which really influenced my style. Just driving up with her trunks of luggage on the back of the car… it was just such a beautiful film. The clothing, I just was like, whoa. The elegance of it, the time period, the black-and-whiteness of it, the cast. It’s just one of those classic films that kind of etched a place in my aesthetics of style and elegance.
Is it a film that you rewatch often?
You know, I’m not a person who really rewatches movies or television shows. It’s really hard for me to watch things twice. I get really anxious. Isn’t that bizarre? I get anxious because I know what’s going to happen. And for some reason, it’s really weird. As a result, I am not a person who can recite lines from movies and dialogue and scenes. Like, I’ve never been able to do that. It’s so funny. I will look back through magazines, but I don’t reread books. I reread I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Bluest Eye recently, but yeah, I don’t rewatch. Couldn’t you tell you why. The closest I can get to it is that it’s hard for me when I know what’s going to happen, but I don’t know.
Yes, I have a close relationship to the lead of that film. But it was really the style and, again, seeing an all Black cast, and the beauty, the fashion in that film just blew me away. Blew me away.
Did you watch it as a kid? Or do you remember the first time seeing it?
No, I was much older when I finally watched it. I wasn’t a kid. It was not a kid’s movie. So I think I was in my twenties when I watched it. I’m sure I’ve seen it more than once, but I couldn’t tell you how many times.
Also I was in her belly and her character’s name was Tracy Chambers. I don’t know if that means anything. It’s like fate.
I’ve never seen such a beautifully shot film. I think it was maybe one of the first “artsy” films I had ever seen. And to see this kind of story told so beautifully. I remember loving that film.
Again, such a beautiful film. To see Blackness shared in this manner with such care and love and beauty, and the vulnerability in this film was just a sight to behold. I was so moved by how love was explored through this film.
Do you have a particular scene or moment from Moonlight that lingers with you the most?
There are two scenes. When he’s a teenager and he’s on the beach with his friend. That moment was just so beautiful, the way they sat there and talked to each other. And then towards the end when they connect again in that house; the way that love is expressed and the tangle of all of the societal ideas that are placed on Black men. To see that kind of strength and vulnerability at the same time was somewhat life-altering, actually.
Joel Meares for Rotten Tomatoes: You shared a video on Instagram of you listening to “Love Myself,” your song from The High Note – and you seemed completely overjoyed and moved by hearing the song and sharing it with people. Why does it mean so much to you right now to be releasing a song?
Tracee Ellis Ross: I think there’s lots of pieces to it. Number one, this is a childhood dream that, somewhere along the way, turned into my biggest fear. And I faced that fear and walked through it. And although I had already done the recording and obviously had heard the song before, this was the moment that I was sharing it with people that don’t know me.
I think it’s really important in our lives to celebrate big and small moments. And this felt like a big one for me. Somehow that Instagram Live felt incredibly intimate and also like a party. And I could have never expected that I would feel like that. I’ve never really done an Instagram – I mean, I’ve gone live for 10 seconds trying to figure out what Live means, but I’ve never advertised and planned, you know, a live party and a sharing of something. And it felt so connected and wonderful. There were 10,000 people in there, but it was really special.
I also think, in this very real time we’re in, where there is so much heaviness, so much loss, so much grief, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of lives, all of this is going on… a heaviness that my heart feels like so many other people, it felt really special to have a moment of lightness, a moment of joy, a moment of freedom, and a moment of sharing and connection. Although, in a different way than we are used to, it seemed to really be a moment of light in the middle of that.
Then there’s the fact that the message of the song is exactly a tonic for the times right now. And I feel like, put down your phone; it doesn’t matter what other people think. It’s like, what do you think of yourself? Love yourself. And that’s the message of the movie. And it felt really special to share that. You know, the message being that no matter the time, no matter the age, the phase, the stage you are at your life, no matter your circumstances, or even people telling you to stay in your lane, it’s never too late to go after what you want. It’s never too late to be who you are, and it’s always worth pursuing that.
Rotten Tomatoes: I’m sure there is some disappointment that this isn’t hitting movie theaters as expected, but it’s also a movie that is going to bring joy into people’s homes. Is this a movie that’s in some ways right for the moment we’re in?
Ross: You know, I can’t really determine that. I think that’s for everybody else to decide, but I do hope that this film brings them joy. It’s a feel-good movie. It’s not a heavy movie. It’s a really feel-good empowering movie. And we know music reaches into our hearts. You know, we all thought it was going to be a movie theater theatrical release, but I think this movie is perfectly suited for being in your home. I think it can be shared with your loved ones or watched by yourself. I think people can make an event of it and get themselves a cocktail or put some lemonade in a stemmed glass. I feel like it’s one of those movies that makes you go through all the emotions. There’s laughter. There’s tears. There’s joy. And there’s music. I mean, what more can you ask for? And there’s fashion, by the way, which also is very helpful.
Rotten Tomatoes: There was some very good fashion. There is a memorable scene where Grace is trying to clean out her closet, but can’t part with anything. Are you like that in real life? Do you struggle to get rid of some of your favorite outfits, or are you a total Marie Kondo?
Ross: I am. I am. I’m not like Grace in a lot of ways – most ways. I don’t share a lot with her. It was really fun to take on the persona of somebody who was larger-than-life like that. And I mean, one of my favorite moments of the movie, by the way, is when Maggie tells Grace that she’s dating someone or something and she’s like, “Does he know about me?” That killed me. I was like, wow, way to turn a moment in the wrong direction! So I am not at all like Grace, but I am in that way. It’s hard for me to let go of my clothing. I love holding onto stuff. It’s hard for me to say goodbye to it.
Rotten Tomatoes: Finally, you’ve grown up with musicians: Was there anyone who you turned to for advice on playing this role when you got it?
Ross: I didn’t. You know, the role was so beautifully written from its first incarnation. When I first read that first draft of the script, it didn’t require a lot of research to look elsewhere. Also, it’s a world I come from, to a certain extent. There was a lot for me to draw on that just lives within my own experience. But the support that I got mostly came in the studio and in the recording process, which was one of the main places that I started to find who Grace was. And how to find her voice, which was combined with my voice. Rodney Jerkins, who is the producer – a very experienced and well-known producer – was my touchstone. He made me feel so safe and so supported, I was able to walk through my fear and get really comfortable.
Then of course I leaned towards friends in moments that I was having panic attacks. I was afraid about what I was doing. I called my sister and my brother who are both singers. And I have a friend that’s a manager in the industry, and I called him at one point. But mostly our director, Nisha [Ganatra], was wonderful, and the script was there, so I didn’t really have to call on anyone. It was all built into the process.
The High Note is available to rent or buy on demand May 29, 2020.
Thumbnail image: Amy Sussman/Getty Images, Everett Collection, David Bornfriend/©A24, ©October Films, ©New Line Cinema, Everett Collection