Director Nisha Ganatra works on the set of “The High Note.” (Courtesy Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Director Nisha Ganatra works on the set of “The High Note.” (Courtesy Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

Director Nisha Ganatra sings praises of her ‘High Note’ cast

Tracee Ellis Ross, Dakota Johnson star pop music-themed flick

Director Nisha Ganatra sings praises of her ‘High Note’ cast

On May 29, what’s ostensibly the first live-action Hollywood movie meant to be released in theaters will make a video-on-demand debut.

Nisha Ganatra’s music-filled romance “The High Note” tells the story of an overworked assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) to a legendary pop star Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) and the ways they help each other out of their personal ruts.

Canadian-born Ganatra, who has been sheltering-in-place in Los Angeles with a 1-1/2 year old baby, spoke with Cinema Toast via phone this week.

What has she been binge watching during this time? “I have only been watching ‘The High Note’ because I have been trying to finish it on time!” she says.

Ross (best known for TV’s “Black-ish”), the daughter of R&B legend Diana Ross, makes not only her big screen starring debut, but also her singing debut in the new film. And she kills it.

“I think she was hiding because she was afraid of being compared to her mom,” says Ganatra.

Ross has a new single “Love Myself,” an advance from the movie’s soundtrack, and it’s doing very well.

“It’s such an undeniably and uplifting song,” says Ganatra. “I think everybody loves it right now.”

Another great casting choice was Kelvin Harrison Jr., of last year’s excellent “Waves,” who plays Johnson’s pop prodigy love interest.

“That was the part that was hardest to cast. I needed an actor that was a romantic lead and had chemistry with Dakota and could actually sing. I considered finding a singer, but I always lean toward an actor that can actually sing. You can’t fix bad acting in post!” she laughs.

If that’s not enough, Ice Cube is on hand playing a part seemingly the opposite of his own persona: a complacent manager more concerned with money and creature comforts than with his client’s career or happiness.

“Ice Cube has 30 years in this business and has met one or two shady managers along the way. I think he had fun giving them a run for their money,” says Ganatra.

What’s extraordinary about “The High Note,” and about Ganatra’s previous film, “Late Night” (available on Amazon Prime), with which it shares many themes, is that the central women end up helping one another, rather than trying to take each other down, as in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

In “The High Note,” interestingly, Dakota Johnson, left, and Tracee Ellis Ross play an assistant and boss who support each other. (Courtesy Focus Features)

In “The High Note,” interestingly, Dakota Johnson, left, and Tracee Ellis Ross play an assistant and boss who support each other. (Courtesy Focus Features)

“I’m definitely not interested in making any movie like that,” she says. “It’s time for movies with messages about women who can help each other and be each other’s allies. Then they end up helping themselves. I hope the message of ‘We all rise up together’ is catching.”

But Ganatra also knows how important it is not to be “messagey” up front, to entertain first, and then “sneak your message in there.”

With her last film “Late Night” permanently in the Amazon Prime streaming library, and the new movie available as a digital rental, she still has an affinity for movie theaters.

“I’m partial to that experience. Going to the theater enhances the comedy, and I love seeing how people react. But I’m living in this world of today, and as a filmmaker you just want as many people as possible to see your movie,” she says.

She’s very curious to see how the video on demand release goes: “I’m nervous and scared, of course, but it’s also an uplifting and joyful movie. We’ll see.”IF YOU WATCH

The High Note

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube

Written by: Flora Greeson

Directed by: Nisha Ganatra

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Available: May 29 on Amazon Prime, Apple, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango, Xfinity

Movies and TV

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