About the Production
Based on many true stories.
The words "based on a true story" won't appear anywhere in the marketing materials for GRACE UNPLUGGED -- but many in the film's cast and crew found something from their personal lives to identify with in the story of a teenage girl yearning to break free from what she sees as the limitations of her family and faith and achieve her dreams of pop music stardom.
For AJ Michalka, who plays the title character, Grace Trey, the real-life similarities come from the experiences she and her sister, Aly, have had as they've transitioned their careers from pre-teen stars in the Disney stable to young adults now recording as 78Violet.
"I think what Grace is going through here is her turning point -- and as Aly & AJ my sister and I had a turning point, too," Michalka says. "We've gotten older, and we're making our music match. So I can identify with that part of Grace. I think every girl can identify with the idea of wanting to be your own person but wanting to please the people around you at the same time. "
Of course, Grace's journey is not purely autobiographical for Michalka. One of the key issues Grace must face in the film is whether the Christian faith she was raised in will continue to be the guiding force in her life, even as she chases success in Hollywood. There's never been a doubt on that score for Michalka.
"As I've gotten older, I've found the only way to keep my priorities right is to get more into God's Word," she says. "You've got to be constantly upping the 'God food' in your life."
Russ Rice, one of the film's producers, has a little more firsthand experience with the kind of struggles Grace has with her faith. The idea for GRACE UNPLUGGED came, in part, from Rice's estrangement from one of his children after she decided not to embrace the faith she was raised on into adulthood.
"My daughter ran away six or seven years ago. She doesn't want to talk to us," Rice says. "She is living apart from her faith, and my prayer is that somehow, somewhere, she might see this movie, receive a jolt and come back to Christ."
Imbuing GRACE UNPLUGGED with such a jolt was the responsibility of Rice's longtime friend, Brad J. Silverman, who wrote and directed the movie. Silverman says as he watched Rice and his family grapple with the crisis of their daughter's running away he was struck by their "tremendous sincerity of heart."
"In that sincere state of heart I saw the trial Russ and his wife were going through," Silverman remembers. "This is a big issue in churches today -- kids growing up and struggling with making their faith their own. That's the journey Grace goes on."
Of critical importance to all concerned was that Grace's journey not be trite or hackneyed -- that the issues she is shown struggling with aren't presented in either a glib or heavy-handed way. She goes through a crisis of faith and conflict with her parents, yes, but she is not depicted as winding up "down and out" the moment she sets foot in Los Angeles after leaving her Alabama home and church where she sings in the worship band led by her Dad.
"I didn't want to make a movie about 'Alabama Christian music good,' 'Hollywood pop music bad,' " Silverman stresses. "This is a coming-of-age story of a girl who has to wrestle with her heart, not a story on the evils of Hollywood."
That distinction was important to Michalka, who described GRACE UNPLUGGED as "a feel-good movie you can go see without being preached at."
"This girl has a dream, and she goes about it in a certain way. And, in the end, she learns what she gets wrong."
Film veteran Kevin Pollak, who co-stars as Frank "Mossy" Mostin," the music agent who guides Grace's career after she leaves home, also drew on some personal experience in bringing his character to life. Mossy, he notes, is based on a few of the people who have guided him over his 25-year career as an actor and comedian.
"I've had a few of these people in my life," he says, "and it's hard to figure out which ones to trust and which ones not to. Ultimately you get burned a couple of times and you learn. You always learn more from failure than from success."
One thing that was not hard for Pollak to figure out was whether he should sign on to GRACE UNPLUGGED. He was drawn by the film's refusal to traffic in cheap cliches by making Mossy a stereotypically seedy, and untrustworthy, agent.
"It would be typical, if not expected, for Mossy to be a villain," Pollak says. "But by making him a good guy who sees talent in Grace and not a devil, it makes her character smarter and her journey more profound. And that makes a greater emotional connection to the story."
Key to the film's power, he adds, is how "it depicts how Grace learns not only how to live the dreams her talent allows her pursue, but how she ultimately does it in a way that leads to reconciliation with her father, her God, and her family. It is wildly moving."
The biggest key, though, to giving Grace's journey meaning is how her conflict with her dad plays out. James Denton, who stars as one-hit-wonder-turned-worship-leader Johnny Trey, called it "tricky" to get the relationship just right. (Denton's based-on-a-true-story connection to the film: One of his first jobs out of college was in his Baptist church's praise band.)
"We couldn't afford for the audience to take sides," he says. "We wanted people to pull for Johnny a little, and to pull for Grace a little. She had to be just bratty enough for you to see why Johnny's rules would force her out of the house, and Johnny has to overreact to things just enough to keep Grace likable."
As Michalka simply puts it: "These are two people who love each other but don't always understand each other. They just can't seem to communicate."
The Johnny-Grace dynamic, and how it is resolved, is at the heart of what the filmmakers hoped to communicate to audiences.
"The stories of Dad and Grace go hand-in-hand," Silverman notes. "The theme for Dad is, sometimes the best we can do for our kids is to let go and let God take care of them."
As for the kids, producer Rice says he hopes the movie leads them to "examine themselves and their faith."
"Do they own their faith? Do they rent their faith? Or do they borrow it from their parents? Those are the questions Grace has to answer, and I hope the audience answers them, too."
In the end, then, the ultimate "true story" the cast and crew of GRACE UNPLUGGED is most concerned with isn't about them -- it's about those who see the movie.
For Michalka, what the movie spotlights is the importance of family and faith.
"Family matters. That's what Grace figures out," she says. "Family are the only people who will tell you when you're getting off the tracks a little. Surround yourself with people who love the Lord, love themselves and love you, and you can't really fail."
Silverman hopes the impact on families goes beyond what they see on screen.
"I'm hoping we prompt a lot of dialogue between families, that this movie is a conversation starter," Silverman says. "At the end of the day, I don't miss the fact that this is entertainment -- and I think we've made a very entertaining movie. But when the movie is over, and the audience reflects on what they've seen, I want Christians to say, 'Wow. I love God.' "
The stakes are always a bit higher in casting a film when the name of one of the characters appears in the movie's title. So Brad J. Silverman was more than a little nervous as he moved through pre-production for GRACE UNPLUGGED without having yet found his Grace.
Silverman, the movie's writer/director, knew exactly what he wanted -- which is what made finding it so hard.
"Someone 18, or who could at least 'play' 18 convincingly. Good-looking, but also very much the girl-next-door. She had to be able to act like Meryl Streep, sing like Celine Dion and play guitar like Eddie Van Halen. Oh, and she had to be a Christian, too."
It was a piece of such complicated cake that he and his fellow filmmakers had already seen several young actresses who just didn't fit the bill, and they were poised to launch a nationwide search via the Internet and social media, thinking they might strike gold by finding an unknown American Idol-style.
And then an agent's assistant mentioned the name of AJ Michalka.
With an impressive resumes in music (a platinum-selling recording artist as half of the duo Aly & AJ with her sister) and acting (SECRETARIAT, THE LOVELY BONES, SUPER 8), Michalka not only knew her way around a guitar, but also percussion and piano. As Silverman and producer Russ Rice did their research and increasingly began to think they'd found their Grace, Michalka was increasingly beginning to think of the role as a great opportunity.
"I read the script and fell in love with it immediately," she recalls. "I just had a peace that this was the next thing I was supposed to do."
The two sides met to discuss the project -- and both remember the same thing about the session.
"We met and prayed together, and AJ is just crying," Silverman says. "I'd never had a meeting like that."
Neither had Michalka, who recalls telling her mother, after returning home, that she wasn't really sure how the meeting went.
"I started crying again talking to her about it," she says. "I just told her, 'Whether or not I get it, it just feels like home for me.' "
It turned out to be just that. Silverman and Rice suspended their search and offered the part to Michalka.
"She was just such a gift from God on every level," Silverman says.
"He's been so nice to me, so good, so encouraging," Michalka says.
Her costars agree that her performance is key to making GRACE UNPLUGGED work.
"If they hadn't found the right girl, they were in trouble," says James Denton, who plays Grace's father, rock-star-turned-worship-leader Johnny Trey. "There's kind of a short list of girls who could do this -- and AJ's at the top of it."
Film veteran Kevin Pollak, who plays Frank "Mossy" Mostin, the manager who guides Grace on her path to pop stardom, agrees that Michalka's acting, singing and musical chops give the film its emotional core.
"It's so well-made and so well-acted," he says. "I'm not a religious person one way or the other, but what she brings to the screen in terms of the struggles Grace goes through en route to finding herself makes her journey that much more profound to me."
As for Michalka, she's grateful to have the opportunity to have played a character as rich and complex as Grace Trey. But Silverman's notion that the role required a young woman who can act like Meryl, sing like Celine and play guitar like Eddie?
"I'm not any one of those things," she says with a shy chuckle. "So I don't think he found the right person."
Writer/director Brad J. Silverman was in the initial stages of developing the story for GRACE UNPLUGGED when he attended a couple of concerts by Christian artists and got much more than a couple of nights of entertainment. The experience led him to realize what he wanted to accomplish with his movie.
"Somewhere in the early days of writing, I went to a Hillsong United concert and later a Chris Tomlin concert," he recalls. "When I walked out of those shows, I was like, 'That was a great worship experience.' Not a concert, not a church service, but a worship experience. And that never left me.
"I want this movie to be a worship experience."
Music is almost a character of its own in GRACE UNPLUGGED, serving as the protagonist that drives a wedge between 18-year-old Grace Trey (AJ Michalka) and her dad, Johnny Trey (James Denton). She plays backup to him in their church's worship band, but longs to break out on her own, making music about things other than God -- like Johnny used to do as a rock star with a Top 10 hit prior to getting saved 20 years earlier. It is music that causes the tension that develops not only between father and daughter, but also within Grace herself, as she struggles to hang onto to her faith after getting a taste of pop-music success.
"The songs tell a really cool story through music," Michalka explains. "It's not a musical, in the sense that everyone's busting into song in the cafeteria, but music is at the heart of the movie, at the heart of Grace's relationship with her Dad, at the heart of who Grace is and who she wants to be."
Adds Silverman: "I don't know anybody who doesn't like music. We might have different tastes and styles, but I don't know anyone who hasn't been moved by it."
The catalyst for Grace's success in the movie is a cover version of "Misunderstood," the song Johnny Trey put on the charts back in the '80s. Silverman found the song in a secular publishing company's back catalog -- it had been written, he says, 10 years earlier by a man who felt judged in his church for writing secular music. The song needed a little tweaking to more snugly fit GRACE UNPLUGGED's dramatic themes, so Silverman contacted the writer and let him make the changes.
The other song central to the film's narrative is "All I've Ever Needed," which Grace performs in front of an audience including her parents after coming to some decisions about her future. Silverman says he combed through hundreds of songs submitted for consideration before finding it.
"I went through lots of demos, saying, 'I like this. Not sure I like this. This is good, but it has to be a ballad,' " he recalls. "It was so critical to get that song right, because it sums up Grace's journey. And AJ's performance of it -- incredible."
Michalka, a platinum-selling recording artist as part of the duo Aly & AJ (now 78Violet) with her sister, isn't the only star of the film with a musical background, though. Although they don't perform onscreen, Christian singers Chris Tomlin (as himself) and Jamie Grace (as Grace's best friend, Rachel) make their big-screen debuts. Both artists appear on the film's soundtrack, to be released in August by Capitol Christian Distribution. American Idol finalist Pia Toscano also plays a small role in the movie.
And Denton, who says he's been a "frustrated musician all my life," used to sing on his church's worship team and now performs as a member of Band from TV, a charity group made up of fellow actors including Hugh Laurie (HOUSE, M.D.), Greg Grunberg (HEROES) and Teri Hatcher (LOIS AND CLARK: THE NEW ADVERTURES OF SUPERMAN).
Denton, who sings one of Tomlin's most popular songs, "You Never Let Go," with Michalka in the movie, says there would be no GRACE UNPLUGGED were it not for the music.
"This movie," he says, "couldn't have been made without it."
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