In “The High Note,” entertainment royalty and fashion icon Tracee Ellis Ross makes her bombshell on-screen singing debut as Grace Davis, legendary music star and multi-Grammy winner — 11 times, to be exact, as her faithful assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) has burned in her memory. Davis is at a crossroads in her decades long career: Should she rest on her laurels with a lucrative Las Vegas residency (as is being pushed by her management) or take a chance and write new original music (as Maggie encourages her to do)?
This all could sound familiar, but not in the way you think: “Grace Davis is not in any way based on my mom, but I think she’s a woman that we all know,” explains Ellis Ross, in the production notes.
To design Grace’s superstar-worthy costumes, Jenny Eagan — who caused a run on white fisherman sweaters thanks to “Knives Out” (and turned Jonah Hill into a version of Post Malone in 2018’s “Maniac“) — also avoided the obvious reference. “It wasn’t about her mom,” says Eagan, on a call from Los Angeles. Although, she did lean into the sartorial clout of former fashion editor, ’90s runway model and beauty entrepreneur Ellis Ross.
“Tracee is so fashion,” says Eagan. “It was a little bit intimidating for me at the beginning. ‘Am I going to get any of this right?’ She beyond knows more than I do, and I’m not afraid to say that.”
To create Grace’s “timeless” signature silhouette of sharp shoulders and dramatic puff-sleeves, Eagan looked to a range of “powerful women,” spanning eras and categories, be it music or politics. Over a long dinner, Ellis Ross, director Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night“), writer Flora Greeson and Eagan assessed and rounded out the character’s persona, on- and off-stage. Collaboratively, Grace’s eye-catching palette of reds, yellows and luxurious metallics complement cinematographer Jason McCormack’s primary color lighting design.
“Those strong, bold colors — not only do they look great on Tracee, but it just was a statement for somebody in her position that has been in charge of what her career,” says Eagan.
The brilliant hues also stand out from — and fit into — Grace’s sprawling SoCal manse, which is actually interior designer Kelly Wearstler‘s impeccable home. So the obvious choice for an afternoon garden party? A sunny yellow Brandon Maxwell jumpsuit, naturally. “That is her ‘relaxed’ backyard at-home look,” laughs Eagan.
Power-dressing to visit the studio, Grace waves to her fans in a MaxMara saffron asymmetrical peplum top and pencil skirt set with a blazer jauntily worn as a cape, fashion editor style (below). “She’s always in this professional manner and wants her audience and her fans to see it’s not just who she is on stage,” explains Eagan. “We wanted to carry the elegance and that refined power from ‘Grace Davis, the performer’ along the whole way.”
Eagan also incorporated ’40s Hollywood glamour through Grace’s showstopper hats by Lady Gaga‘s milliner of choice, Gladys Tamez. In an opening scene, as Grace begins her descent down the stairway of her private jet — power-move — she stuns in a cream Victoria Beckham dress with a keyhole-neckline and velvety wide-brim Western topper (second from top).
“Oh my gosh, her coming out of the plane with the hat on… ” says Eagan. “Whether it’s to hide yourself or if it’s for some cover, it just was a statement.” Even backstage, Grace commands the room in a very “Hollywood” custom-built silver dressing gown.
Heading back to the ’70s, Eagan custom-designed a pure fire red halter jumpsuit (below), which the superstar wears through a multi-city concert montage.
To distinguish between performances and give Grace something to “strip away,” Eagan added the long sleeve matching jacket at the last minute. Both pieces, covered in long fringe, were “extraordinarily heavy,” so she engineered the designs to evenly distribute the weight for Ellis Ross to nimbly sing and dance. Like her character, the triple-threat is a pure professional.
“Tracee was like, ‘I got this. I can do it,'” Eagan says.
Maggie, Grace’s eager assistant of three years, spends her days picking up green juices and dry cleaning for her demanding boss. But she harbors producing ambitions in a male-dominated field. (Stat: Only six women have received Grammy nominations — no wins — for Producer of the Year, starting with Janet Jackson in 1989.) Close with her radio DJ dad (Bill Pullman), Maggie has a deep appreciation of music history, as also depicted through her “simple” wardrobe — and you’ll want all of it.
“The fringed jacket takes you back to Joni Mitchell,” says Eagan, about Maggie’s oft-repeated brown suede Nili Lotan (second from top).
The re-wearing and styling of pieces reflects Maggie’s tight budget, but also speaks to the ethos of minimizing and developing more sustainable practices, which is more timely a year after the movie wrapped. “Everybody wants to simplify and reuse and recycle,” she adds.
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Eagan also had Maggie repeat perfectly-fitting vintage Levi’s and authentic throwback concert tees, like a worn-in Crosby Stills & Nash one that showcased her taste range. “Her knowledge and breadth of music is so wide and expanded. That was the most important thing to her,” says Eagan. “We didn’t want to make it like fashion was her thing.”
But Maggie can’t really help it. Case in point: For a thwarted evening off, she steps it up to meet David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), an up-and-coming singer who scrappily performs in grocery store parking lots — but apparently enjoys a healthy independent income of his own. Her best friend and roommate Katie (Zoë Chao, playing the responsible version of her roomie character in “Love Life“) usually helps herself to Grace’s high-end designer discards that Maggie is supposed to drop off at Goodwill. But this time, Maggie rifled through the Konmari-ed items to borrow a “$3,000 Saint Laurent” jacket, as Grace points out to her sticker-shell-shocked assistant.
The inclusion of the cougar print longline jacket was a collaborative moment between Eagan and Greeson, who needed a specific designer (and price-point) reference for the script. But the piece had to make sense for Maggie’s arc.
“Why would she be wearing a gown to [David’s] house? Or some gold lamé thing?” asks Eagan, who landed on the “expensive-looking” grunge-glam coat, which she casually styled with faded jeans and a white t-shirt (above).
The movie also features real-life music star cameos, starting with a nattily-suited Ice Cube as Grace’s loyal manager Jack. Then, there’s Diplo, as smarmy producer Richie Williams.
“The character is a version of what I am; a way cheesier version,” explains the real-life producer, DJ and songwriter, in the production notes.
Eagan and Diplo hadn’t discussed his costume prior to meeting on set, so she set aside options, including a tracksuit befitting an industry pro who’s heavy-handed on the autotune and way too much synth. After a discussion, the two decided to merge a dash of Diplo and a grown man who refers to himself as “R. Dubs” through black leather pants, a chunky black cardigan unbuttoned to his navel and no shirt.
“Who wears the shirt open?” Eagan laughs, about perfectly illustrating Richie’s overly confident swagger, adding: “The choker, if memory serves, was his own. He was like, ‘I brought this’ and I was like, ‘Wow. Why do you have that?’ It’s beautiful and adds just that little touch to make it be that much over the top.” (Or as Richie might ask: “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question. This is dope.”)
No spoilers, but a shared love of music brings Maggie and Grace together into a mutual understanding, and their influence on each other comes through in a convergence of their distinct styles. Maggie ultimately makes a power move of her own in a white suit comprised of a Ralph Lauren blazer and perfectly-matching Stella McCartney trousers.
“It’s this step up and following [in the footsteps of] Grace, in terms of having power,” says Eagan.
Meanwhile, Grace’s Ferragamo jumpsuit (above) during a bonding moment between the two feels like a call-back to Maggie’s grocery store boilersuit, when she has her meet-cute with David. But Grace’s easy yet impossibly chic one-piece also exudes a more relaxed, comfortable and open approach to herself, her life and her career.
“She recognized that she had people around her that truly admired and supported her — for the best part of her,” says Eagan.