Tracee Ellis Ross Lights up the Screen as a Conflicted Diva in ‘The High Note’

A lighthearted take on music industry is explored in “The High Note,” a dramedy with an old-school feel from director Nisha Ganatra. The story centers on a young Los Angeles woman, Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson). To pay her bills and her dues, she works for an iconic pop diva, Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). Although Maggie really wants to be a producer, her primary duties include running errands, sorting through designer duds, and driving her boss home when she’s drunk.

Secretly, Maggie has been producing an album of Grace’s live tracks. She’s not ready to show it to the world, and even if she did, she would get major pushback from Jack (Ice Cube), Grace’s manager, who would prefer that she did a remix album with a pretentious producer played by none other than Diplo

A trip to a local Trader Joe’s-like store leads to a fortuitous first meeting with charming David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who turns out to be a talented musician as well as a fellow music historian. The two bond over a shared love of California rock, and it’s not long before Maggie offers her producer services to David, although she misleads him about her experience. The two go on to create music together in the studio, and it’s not long before sparks fly in the bedroom too. 

Harrison, who spoke with Entertainment Voice, opened up about working with Johnson, gushing about the passion and enthusiasm she brought to the set. “As artists, we’re all there because we love a script, and everyone has to do their best work to bring it to life. It’s a team sport, in a lot of ways. I think of us as athletes, and she was our quarterback. It was cool to watch her throw around ideas all day, and I got to catch them if I could. Sometimes I missed those balls, but I think I caught most of them.”

However, Harrison revealed that It was Ellis Ross and her character that first attracted him to the film, particularly the truth that he believed she could bring to Grace. “I just loved hearing about what it’s like for a woman of her skin color and her age to be in the industry… I knew she was going to bring light and love to that part. I think that was exciting to me.”

Indeed, Ellis Ross, who grew up with her mother, music legend Diana Ross, brings an authenticity to Grace, a superstar who is seen as being past her prime, at least by industry standards. While Jack wants her to be content with a Las Vegas residency, Maggie eventually pushes her to record an album of new material for the first time in ten years. Although Grace romances Michael B. Jordan and is an overall boss, she has her insecurities, and Ellis Ross does a great job of balancing her empowered side with her vulnerable side.

Although Harrison is known for delivering powerful performances in “Luce” and “Waves,” both dramas dealing with darker themes, he actually has a musical background. “It was scary, but it was also very exciting,” he said when asked what it was like to finally utilize his musical skills onscreen. “I’ve always wanted to have a moment like this, performing on a stage and recording music and being in the studio, and just dressing up in cool outfits… I think the inner child in me, that nine, eight, ten, eleven, twelve year old was just, like, screaming and going, ‘Oh my god.’ This is everything you’d imagine your life would be like at 25. That catch is, it’s just a movie, and I’m at home in quarantine (laughs).”

Harrison discussed how his experience doing a comedy compared to acting in dramas, revealing that the most important thing when it comes to any role is finding truth. “Pacing and timing is key, too. Nisha talked a lot about that. With indie dramas, I can take space. I do a lot of breathing in those indie dramas. I can take all the time I want for a moment, but that’s not how this kind of movie works. It’s about, what’s the cadence? How much time do you need between a line and a joke or a punchline? Keeping it light, staying on your feet, that would be the note I would get a lot. ‘Okay, Kelvin, you understand the depths of this man. Keep him on his toes, please.’”

A running theme in “The High Note” is self-doubt, as Grace, Maggie and David all experience it, David, especially, because despite his gifts, he’s still playing groceries stores and kids’ birthday parties.

“I think, as an actor, everyday,” Harrison admitted when asked if he experiences self-doubt in his own career. “As a musician, I definitely had that moment, and that’s why I became an actor. But as an actor, I still walk into every movie with imposter syndrome. ‘What if I’m not good enough?’ I think about everybody I worked with in my career, like Octavia Spencer. ‘What if Octavia Spencer thinks I’m bad? What if Naomi Watts thinks I’m bad? Or Sterling K. Brown thinks I’m bad? Or Tracee Ellis Ross thinks I’m bad? What if Dakota thinks I’m bad? What’s going to happen then? I’m going to get fired, obviously. Then I’ll be unemployed, and my parents will be upset with me.’ Every movie I have that spiral, and at the end of the movie, I’m like, ‘Oh, I did it.’”

Although Harrison and Ellis Ross only appear in a few scenes together, they make them count. “She’s like a ball of joy. Seeing her light up a room in any given second, and never shrink herself in the process, it felt like magic,” he recalled. “She did it with such grace, like her character’s name.”

All of Maggie and David’s hard work leads to a climatic performance, a duet between him and Grace in front of a packed crowd. After a month and a half of recording the lively and stirring soundtrack in an intimate studio, Harrison was forced to get over any stage fright he had when they shot this concert scene on the first day of filming. “It’s revealing. It’s like walking on stage naked, a little bit. You’re like, ‘Oh? You like what you see?’ (Laughs).”

The High Note” is available May 29 on VOD.