Two Divas Dream of Hitting ‘The High Note’

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross lose themselves in the music and the moment.

On Friday, director Nisha Ganatra’s first studio film The High Note premieres online. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she’d been looking forward to going to all the mainstream theaters to see it on the big screen. Instead, she and her friends in Los Angeles have come up with an alternate plan. “We’re actually trying to see if we can get it to play at a drive-in so we can all go there, which would be really cool.”

The High Note is Ganatra’s 21st century take on a rom com. Set under an azure-skied Los Angeles, Maggie (Dakota Johnson) runs errands in her beat up 1970s Chevy Malibu for Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an increasingly less relevant pop star. But Maggie wants to do more in life than pick up smoothies for Grace. She wants to be a music producer. It just so happens that Grace hasn’t made an album of new material in years. Could this be the opportunity that Maggie’s been waiting for?

To establish her bonafides as a future tastemaker in music, Maggie grew up on Catalina Island with her respected, bohemian, DJ dad (Bill Pullman). There’s still a poster of Grace Davis — when she was in her prime — hanging on her childhood bedroom wall. To sketch in the rest of her character, Maggie blasts a lesser known hit of Aretha Franklin’s, “Share Your Love with Me,” on her Malibu speakers. And when she rifles through the record collection of a cute singer (Kelvin Harrison Jr. as “David”), Maggie displays an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure recordings that rivals the Championship Vinyl employees in High Fidelity. 

Ganatra says that she’s always been a huge fan of Nora Ephron as well as the movies that Working Title Films produce, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999). But when she worked with Mindy Kaling on her previous film Late Night, they called it, “an ode to hard work.” The High Note isn’t a romance between Maggie and David. The director says, “It’s between Maggie and her creative process.” That’s the refreshing twist for Ganatra. “I loved both Maggie and Grace’s unapologetic love for the work that they do and their single-minded commitment to it.”   

The other love story here is an ode to Los Angeles itself. Ganatra feels that it’s not been given its due in movies. “Nobody really takes the time to see the gorgeous mountain range in the middle,” she says. “Our sunlight, and even the twilight, is so unique. When Maggie’s driving home to the Aretha Franklin song, I’ve never seen that light blue in the sky anywhere else.” 

In pre-production, she and her cinematographer Jason McCormick landed on the work of photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia. “We just kept coming back to those photos and the way he captured light and the inside-outside worlds.” Ganatra really wanted a warm, lush vibe to Los Angeles. “I think Jason’s really talented at capturing the natural light that’s happening and emphasizing it. He doesn’t overlight things. He’ll trust that our eyes are seeing what we naturally see.” 

They shot the film with a wide-angle lens. For her, that’s the only bummer about The High Note not being seen on the big screen. But she hopes that people will hook up an external speaker to “get the full beauty of the music and the songs.” 

The Grace Davis character is an amalgamation of different pop music icons. Ganatra says, “We pulled from Tina Turner, Madonna, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé. And a little from Lady Gaga.” The filmmaker wanted Grace to feel like a familiar and believable icon yet entirely her own creation. She also wanted to address the isolation that success can bring, “how the world gets smaller and smaller as you achieve this un-achievable dream.” Ellis Ross, Ganatra feels, brought that nuanced layer to the performance growing up as Diana Ross’ daughter. That proximity to fame added more dimension to the character.

And that is actually Ellis Ross’ voice you hear on the soundtrack. According to Ganatra, she had never sung in public before because she was afraid of the comparisons to her mother. “We were relieved after Tracee sang on her first day in the studio because we knew we wouldn’t have to do any of those movie tricks to make her sound great. We could just record her because she has a beautiful voice.” 

The director does include many familiar rom com cliches, such as the supportive “best friend” roles who crack one-liners and then disappear. Or the scenes in which conflicts emerge and then clear up without any agonizing introspection. Maggie’s been lucky enough to be the right person, in the right place at the right time. The High Note doesn’t romanticize the idea of finding a soul mate. The movie casts a protective halo around the notion that she can achieve her show biz dreams with enough hard work and dedication. 

Positing a way forward for rom coms, Ganatra observes that, “Maggie and Grace are highly competent women who are doing their work very well. But they’re not tripping over their heels or dimming their light in any way by apologizing for their strength and intelligence and power.” It’s beside the point if she settles down with David. The sound mixer in a music studio is the true love of Maggie’s life.

Opening on demand on Friday, May 29, 2020.

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