The High Note, a refreshingly fun and upbeat film written by Flora Greeson and directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night), stars Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross as two hard-working women at opposite ends of their careers, yet still striving to be relevant. Ross is Grace Davis, a legendary singer/songwriter and Johnson is Maggie, her admiring yet ambitious personal assistant who dreams of being a music producer. While on the surface it’s light and charming, there’s more to it than meets the eye and I had an opportunity to speak with Ganatra not only about making the film, but what Hollywood movies like this mean to her.
Although initially starting her career as an actress, Ganatra shifted to behind the camera, realizing “you’re not that great at it and you didn’t want to do that. You wanted to tell stories.” Directing seemed a perfect fit for her as she relished the thought of the ability to capture actors’ unique performances, “…making these beautiful stories visceral and real through their talents.”
Ganatra hadn’t worked with the fledgling screenwriter Greeson before Working Title Films approached her with the screenplay, but after pouring through the pages, she deemed it a “classic Hollywood movie,” reminiscent of Erin Brockovich, Working Girl and The Devil Wears Prada. Similarly, The High Note is “… a really fun, uplifting, hopeful, and funny movie” with women at the focal point.
Ganatra was drawn to the two strong female leads, Maggie and Grace. Comparing this film to her last, Late Night, Ganatra said, “These two women are very good at what they do and they work really hard. They’re defined by their work and they want to move to the next level, [but] they just aren’t getting the opportunities…” Their unapologetic attitude and drive propel them, emphasizing “…no one’s going to stand in my way except myself.” Relating to these aspects, Ganatra expanded upon this by sharing the fact that she and Tracee discussed, at length, the sacrifices women make to be at the top of their game. “What do we have to sacrifice? And are those sacrifices necessary? And what do we lose when we make those sacrifices? What do we give up in ourselves? I think that was all really beautiful territory for us to explore.”
The film also beautifully addresses topics like ageism, sexism, and racism while still maintaining that “high note” of levity and fun. Ganatra shared one of the most defining moments in the film which addresses this, quoting Ross’s character, “‘In the history of music, there have only been five women over the age of 40 who have had a number one hit.” The reality of that factual statistic shook Ganatra, and she challenged the accepted perception, stating incredulously, “It was a really serious note to address…why is there ageism? Why are women being discounted as irrelevant when they have more experience and [are] better than ever with what they are doing?”
These more serious tones underlie the levity which both Ice Cube and June Diane Raphael brought to the table. Both of us gushed about Ice Cube, sounding more like fans than industry people to my delight, Ganatra grew up with Ice Cube and couldn’t believe he was on set for her film. She shared, “He is the best improviser and [when] he yells ‘Who do you think you are? Missy Elliott?’ Ice Cube is just making it up and just having a really fun time putting Maggie in her place.”
The chemistry among the lead women, Johnson and Ross, as well as Johnson with Kelvin Harrison, Jr., brings authenticity to the film. Ganatra found that this was accomplished with their rehearsal process. However, she thought that both Ice Cube and Raphael in portraying their characters, came ready-made with their chemistry. She described Raphael’s character of Gail as “the female Kato Kaelin,” lacking all drive and ambition. Ganatra added, “To be able to pass this unabashedly lazy clinger, freeloader, alongside the most ambitious, hard working character, was really fun.”
Citing memorable and influential films, Ganatra feels that The High Note “…is a bit of a love letter to LA.” Without spoiling the plot and ending, the film finds its way via a ferry to Catalina Island. She laughs about this choice as it was an ode to Working Girl and finds ironic humor in the fact that Maggie goes back to where she started, but it ends up being just a half hour away from LA! Her voice seemed to melt as she described her experience filming on this gorgeous island reminiscent of the South of France saying, “Why don’t we come here more often?” After discovering the requisite radio station on Catalina, the entire film’s ending and Maggie’s background changed to fit this ideal location. “[The High Note] is such an interior movie. Visually, we were inside recording studios and inside apartments and houses. It felt nice to get wide and breathe and see the sights…”
Ganatra’s gracious demeanor was as refreshing as the film as we talked about making these classic stories with a new perspective. You can stream The High Note on all major digital platforms beginning Friday, May 29.
© Pamela Powell (5/26/20) FF2 Media
Photos by Glen WIlson – © 2020 FOCUS FEATURES LLC