In Focus Features' "The High Note," Tracee Ellis Ross plays a music icon on the decline. And the role required the Golden Globe-winning actress do something she had never done on camera: sing.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra ("Late Night") from a script by Flora Greeson, the film centers around the relationship between Grace Davis (Ross), a woman of a certain age whose record label is set to lock her into a predictable but profitable Las Vegas residency, and her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who harbors dreams of becoming a rare female music producer in the male-dominated industry.
Ross, who also has her first feature lead role in the film, says she was "terrified" to sing publicly for the first time.
"I've always wanted to sing," she said. "It was a childhood dream that I don't know when or why I put aside. I mean, I understand why it was scary for me with my mom being Diana Ross, those are very big shoes to fill. I think I was worried about the comparison."
"Tracee is extremely talented and smart and funny and worked so hard," said Johnson. "I mean, we were all hustling trying to be convincing as the people we were playing -- I was in piano lessons and Kelvin (Harrison Jr.) and Tracee were both singing. It was really inspiring and a joy to work with them."
"I cast Tracee before I even heard her sing," said Ganatra. "So I was really nervous because I thought, 'What if she can't sing? That's going to be really embarrassing.' But when we were in the studio for the first time, I was just blown away but also incredibly relieved that we wouldn't have to do all the tricks of the trade to make her sound good. It's amazing to me that (she) has never sang in public before."
While she admits to feeling nervous about following in the Motown legend's footsteps, Ross insists her portrayal of the character "has nothing to do with my mom." "I didn't use her as inspiration -- it was all on the page," she said. "I'm sure there are elements from being her child for this many years and spending so much time watching her onstage that is in what I know, but she was in no way an inspiration for or a place that I researched this character."
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film, which was originally scheduled for a theatrical release last month, premieres this weekend on digital on-demand (much to the chagrin of the film's crew).
"I love going to the movies and that's why I wrote a movie," said Greeson, who served as a longtime assistant before making the switch to screenwriting. "It's definitely challenging and a change of plans, but it weirdly feels so much more personal now to know people are bringing this movie into their homes at a time like this."
"I'm a little bummed because it's Tracee Ellis Ross' feature film debut," said Ganatra. "I really wanted to show everybody all her glory on the big screen. And the movie was shot anamorphic and widescreen, so it's really a big-screen experience. All of the sound engineers made the concert scenes to feel like you're right there. Given the global pandemic, I am really happy that people are going to get to see it safe at home. But I definitely need people to turn up the sound system and not just watch it on the iPad!"