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Why ‘The High Note’ chose to celebrate women, instead of pitting them against each other

Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson in Focus Features' "The High Note."
Tracee Ellis Ross, left, as Grace Davis and Dakota Johnson as Maggie Sherwoode in Focus Features’ “The High Note.”
(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

Director Nisha Ganatra, screenwriter Flora Greeson and stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson are just a few of the female forces behind “The High Note,” a film about women navigating a professional relationship absent rivalry but full of ambition.

In Focus Features’ ”The High Note,” Tracee Ellis Ross plays a music icon on the decline. And the role required the Golden Globe-winning actress do something she had never done on camera: sing.

Directed by Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night”) from a script by Flora Greeson, the film centers around the relationship between Grace Davis (Ross), a woman of a certain age whose record label is set to lock her into a predictable but profitable Las Vegas residency, and her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who harbors dreams of becoming a rare female music producer in the male-dominated industry.

Ross, who also has her first feature lead role in the film, says she was “terrified” to sing publicly for the first time.

“I’ve always wanted to sing,” she said. “It was a childhood dream that I don’t know when or why I put aside. I mean, I understand why it was scary for me with my mom being Diana Ross, those are very big shoes to fill. I think I was worried about the comparison.”

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“Tracee is extremely talented and smart and funny and worked so hard,” said Johnson. “I mean, we were all hustling trying to be convincing as the people we were playing — I was in piano lessons and Kelvin [Harrison Jr.] and Tracee were both singing. It was really inspiring and a joy to work with them.”

“I cast Tracee before I even heard her sing,” said Ganatra. “So I was really nervous because I thought, ‘What if she can’t sing? That’s going to be really embarrassing.’ But when we were in the studio for the first time, I was just blown away but also incredibly relieved that we wouldn’t have to do all the tricks of the trade to make her sound good. It’s amazing to me that [she] has never sang in public before.”

Tracee Ellis Ross stars in "The High Note."
Tracee Ellis Ross makes her feature film acting and singing debut in Focus Features’ “The High Note.”
(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

While she admits to feeling nervous about following in the Motown legend’s footsteps, Ross insists her portrayal of the character “has nothing to do with my mom.” “I didn’t use her as inspiration — it was all on the page,” she said. “I’m sure there are elements from being her child for this many years and spending so much time watching her onstage that is in what I know, but she was in no way an inspiration for or a place that I researched this character.”

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In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film, which was originally scheduled for a theatrical release earlier this month, premieres this weekend on digital on-demand (much to the chagrin of the film’s crew).

“I love going to the movies and that’s why I wrote a movie,” said Greeson, who served as a longtime assistant before making the switch to screenwriting. “It’s definitely challenging and a change of plans, but it weirdly feels so much more personal now to know people are bringing this movie into their homes at a time like this.”

“I’m a little bummed because it’s Tracee Ellis Ross’ feature film debut,” said Ganatra. “I really wanted to show everybody all her glory on the big screen. And the movie was shot anamorphic and widescreen, so it’s really a big-screen experience. All of the sound engineers made the concert scenes to feel like you’re right there. Given the global pandemic, I am really happy that people are going to get to see it safe at home. But I definitely need people to turn up the sound system and not just watch it on the iPad!”

“I really wanted to be on the big screen for a film like this, because Grace is so larger-than-life,” said Ross. “But I think this film is perfectly positioned to be [experienced] at home because it’s such a feel-good movie. I hope it offers people a little bit of joy and respite from the heaviness that’s happening right now.”

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Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in Focus Features' "The High Note."
Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross play women trying to get ahead in the music industry in “The High Note.”
(Glen Wilson / Focus Features)

The dynamic between Grace and Maggie, women in contrasting positions in their careers who team up for the greater good of both, parallels that of Ganatra’s 2019 film “Late Night,” written by Mindy Kaling, who also starred alongside Emma Thompson. “I love any movie that tells women to take a really big risk and that that risk is going to be rewarded,” the director said. “I am all for that movie and for that message.”

“When the story came along, I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Ross, who has starred in the ABC sitcom “black-ish” for six seasons and the UPN sitcom “Girlfriends” for eight. “I’ve had the opportunity of doing long-running TV shows and being very fulfilled by the characters that I’ve played for years at a time, so it took something really special for me to want to do a film.”

Unlike her character, who has hit a career plateau and is forced to reinvent herself to remain relevant, Ross says she’s enjoying a career high. “So much of my success and opportunities have come in my late 40s and I’m grateful for that,” she said. “I feel the sexiest and the best-looking that I’ve ever felt.”

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Besides offering a portrait of women that manages to pass the Bechdel test, Ganatra made it a mission to strive for gender parity behind the camera as well, choosing women to lead the sound, production design, costume and props departments as well as serving as the film’s executive producer (Alexandra Loewy), composer (Amie Doherty) and editor (Wendy Greene Bricmont).

“I’ve always looked for gender parity behind and in front of the camera,” said Ganatra. “But I think it’s important because you just make a better movie that way. It’s such a collaborative art that if you don’t include as many voices and have diversity and inclusion behind the lens, your movie is going to have a lot of blind spots and will not feel as complete and whole as it could.”

“Working with Nisha was extra special,” said Ross. “To work with a smart woman of color who you can have nuanced conversations with about the dynamics of race and how they are playing out in a story that isn’t really even about that was really great. There was a sense of shared power and collaborative leadership that was spectacular. I felt incredibly supported and heard. And it was fun.”

“I’ve been a fan of Tracee for a long time,” said Ganatra. “But I also needed an actress who was great at comedy, could be moving and dramatic, was charming and quirky and could make this character likable even in the moments where she’s being a crazy diva. And someone who understood the world of a music icon and what it’s like to be so insanely famous that you lose even your own sense of self and voice. And who else but Tracee Ellis Ross could bring all that to the role? She was just perfect for it.”

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Screenwriter Flora Greeson and director Nisha Ganatra on the set of "The High Note."
Screenwriter Flora Greeson, left, and director Nisha Ganatra on the set of “The High Note.”
(Jennifer Clasen / Focus Features)

The film marks Ganatra’s studio debut, a milestone she’d considered out of reach after spending two decades in the indie space before achieving a breakout Sundance hit with “Late Night.”

“I definitely identify with that struggle of being on the outside and desperately wanting to be on the inside of an industry that you have zero idea how to become a part of,” she said. “It’s always been a dream to make and direct a studio film but I never thought I’d get to. I kind of closed that door in my own head that studios were hiring female directors.

“The people who have the power to say yes to what gets made have only recently started being more inclusive,” Ganatra added. “Hopefully we will make up for all that lost time and tell those stories now.”

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“The overall message of this film, I thought, was really important and identifiable,” said Ross. “The idea that no matter the age, stage, phase of your life, no matter what people are saying or the lane they think you should be in, that it’s never too late to be who you are or to pursue your dreams. I also loved the fact that this is a movie about two women that weren’t against each other and that ultimately end up helping and supporting each other.”

“I think it’s important to have more portrayals of women helping each other and showing that, while we help each other, we both rise,” said Ganatra. “And in helping our fellow women, we even end up helping ourselves.”


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