When the daughter of music legend Diana Ross, Golden Globe-winning actress Tracee Ellis Ross, was asked to play an ageing music diva on screen, she was naturally terrified.
Daunted by her mother’s legacy, until today her own singing was reserved strictly for the shower, and certainly not for public consumption.
Yet, despite all her reservations, she couldn’t resist taking on the role of a fading music icon in The High Note, co-starring Dakota Johnson as her plucky assistant, Maggie, who harbours dreams of becoming a rare female producer in a male-dominated industry.
Stepping into the formidable shoes of The High Note’s Grace Davis; a woman who finds herself sidelined by the ageist music biz, Ross tackled the role with sincerity. “I felt really honoured to play a woman who is my age and yet not telling the story as me having an issue with that; to actually be kinda loving it.
“That was a big part of what drew me to the role – the overall message that even at her age, it is never too late to continue to pursue your dream and to become more of yourself. It was also thrilling to be telling a story with two female leads whose stories were not about them in context to men but instead about them in context to themselves, and the fact they both supported each other,” she tells STACK when we chat with the cast over Zoom.
“I loved that the moral of this story is not about riding off with the man in shining armour but, instead, the moral is that she loves herself. Not only does she get to choose herself and love herself but allows her secret to come forward and that Maggie gets to sit in the chair that she wants to sit in that is not usually inhabited by a woman.”
With Ross’s beautiful voice front and centre – and also with the film’s signature song, Love Myself, now serving as her debut single – we cannot help but ask why she has hidden her own vocal talents for so long.
“Because I was terrified!” she says, letting loose a long throaty laugh, “It was a childhood dream that somehow turned into this big scary thing. The longer you wait to do something, the bigger the monster becomes.
“It was an honest fear. My mother being Diana Ross – it’s big shoes to fill; an international beloved icon. I worried about the comparison and the judgement.
“But what I discovered, which was the most exciting part of this, both through Grace and through my own journey, is this arc of how at a certain point it doesn’t matter what people think. It doesn’t even matter what you think really, it’s the desire and the dream that’s really the point, and letting that voice come out.
“So the singing is exactly like other aspects of my life and career, that it’s not about trying to sound like someone else or be like someone else, but instead, how can you tell the truth? That was the revelation for me in the singing, that there really was nothing to be afraid of because the only hard work was getting out of my own way and letting my voice out.”
Ultimately, she says the most remarkable thing was that The High Note’s director, Nisha Ganatra (Late Night), cast her without ever having heard her sing.
“They had no idea if I could sing! I guess they figured, in worst-case scenario, they could cast me and put someone else’s voice in there. So it was a treat and surprise to everybody – least of all me,” says the actress, celebrated for her long-running role in TV’s Black-ish.
Taking her cues from Broadcast News, Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada, Ganatra says, “The story of a woman putting it all on the line for a career she dreams about is something we haven’t seen in a long time. And though we get music-driven movies that centre on the male point of view, we don’t often get them about women and about women of colour. And if we do, it’s rarely in the form of a comedy.
“I love this movie because it’s fun to be in music and fun to be an artist – and I want this movie to inspire people to follow their dreams and also inspire a generation of young women to aspire to be a part of the creative process,” she adds.
In combining the comedic talents of Ice Cube, Eddie Izzard and June Diane Raphael with the beautiful vocals of Kelvin Harrison Jr. as David, a compelling rom-com leading man, Ganatra’s greatest desire is to bring joy to a shuttered world.
“In this strange new pandemic time, I hope The High Note helps bring a little joy to all of our lives. I think it’s important to tell stories that emphasise how we all benefit from striving to be our best selves and from coming together to support one another – with great performances, a lot of laughs and some truly unforgettable music. Because nothing buoys the spirits like beautiful songs and laughter.”
Having dated Coldplay’s Chris Martin for the past four years, Dakota Johnson is no stranger to the inner workings of music production.
“When I first read the script, my heart fluttered and I laughed,” she says. “I thought it was perfect. I really wanted to see a movie with that woman at the centre of it. She’s funny and self-deprecating and always working harder, always trying to be better. Reading the script, I never felt like she was compromising herself or selling herself short. You experience her ultimately getting kicked in the stomach, but she doesn’t give up. She’s a great role model for young women.”
A passionate music fan, Johnson tells how she immediately connected with Maggie’s passion and inner fire.
“This is a world that l love, that I understand. I just love music. I have my whole life. I love it almost more than I love movies because I love it in purely an emotional way. When I watch a movie, I’m studying, I’m dissecting, I’m learning. But when I’m listening to music, it’s purely emotional. My music history knowledge is totally nerdy.”
As The High Note’s stylish Grace, Ross clearly borrows from the likes of Mariah Carey, J-Lo or Cher – with just a dash of her own mother.
Ask how her mother reacted to the film, she says, “I finally shared the music with her after the first month. I had all the music on my phone and I picked her up and we sat in the driveway in my car, and she turned to me with tears running down her face and said, ‘Finally!’”
Taking that as the ultimate seal of approval, she adds, “It didn’t occur to me until much later that audiences might feel my role was based on my mom. I lived as my mom’s daughter for so long, that the only place where it was difficult was facing my own fear of being compared to her and hoping that my voice was not only not bad but that I could pull off playing somebody who had to be considered a longtime icon; a woman who had decades of hits. Like I had to have an ease on stage with holding a microphone that I don’t actually have in my life.”
At 47-years-old, Ross has no time for the notion that any woman is too old for her career. “I look at myself and I think that I’m sexier and better-looking than I’ve ever been. I don’t even understand this concept. I feel like we get so much better with time. If wine gets better with time, then why don’t we?
“I wouldn’t go back to 20 if you paid me. I’m so happy with every year I get older. I’ve earned my stripes and every laugh line tells me that I’ve enjoyed a lot of laughing and, really, what could be better? Hopefully the rest of the world is waking up to that.”
• The High Note is in cinemas (excluding Victoria) from September 24