"Oh my God. Has it been 14 years since [The Devil Wears Prada]?” The High Note's director Nisha Ganatra wondered aloud during a recent phone interview with Refinery29.
It seems like yesterday that Andy (Anne Hathaway) and her cerulean sweater shuffled into Miranda Priestly’s (Meryl Streep) office, only to blossom into a confident, Chanel boot-wearing fashionista through a lot of verbal harassment. At the time, David Frenkel’s film, from a script by Aline Brosh McKenna, was hailed as the successor of movies like Working Girl or Broadcast News. Today, Ganatra has taken on the mantle of reigning queen of the feminist workplace comedy, first with 2019’s Late Night, and now The High Note, which hits virtual theatres (also known as VOD) May 29.
When the trailer for Late Night came out in March 2019, I was among many calling it the next Devil Wears Prada. But after seeing The High Note, I realise that’s not quite the case. Ganatra isn’t so much throwing back to that genre as she is pushing it forward. The troubles women face in the workplace have evolved since 2004, as has storytelling itself. Ganatra’s work reflects those changes, asking new questions and exploring different relationships and dynamics.
Starring Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross, The High Note follows many of the same beats as The Devil Wears Prada. Johnson — sporting a more ‘70s L.A. version of Andy’s cool girl bangs — plays Maggie, an earnest but ambitious assistant to superstar Grace Davis (Ellis Ross), whose successful career is at a crossroads. Though her tours continue to sell out, she hasn’t created new music in years, leading everyone to whisper the dreaded question: “What’s next?” Maggie thinks she knows. As an aspiring music producer, she has a vision for what the new chapter of Grace’s story should look like — if only she could get that one shot.
With a stellar supporting cast (including Kelvin Harrison Jr. — who sings! — and Ice Cube), a soundtrack full of catchy original songs, and eye-catchingly bold fashion statements (Grace’s jumpsuits!), the result is a gorgeously shot film that celebrates the upside of being a woman creative, without turning a blind eye to the barriers that stand in our way.
“Maggie gets access that Grace doesn’t. Even though [Grace is] the more powerful one, she’s a Black woman."
“The Devil Wears Prada did such a great job with the nightmare boss/put-upon assistant dynamic that I don’t think any of us were interested in revisiting that,” Ganatra continued. “It was interesting to find a different take on [that] trope. What was refreshing to me was to think how you do cross a line between, Are we friends? Are we not friends? But once in a while there’s this intimacy [between boss and assistant], and that’s confusing and hard. It’s a way to explore mentorship among women, which we’re kind of new to as a generation, and how we negotiate the boundaries of being mentors.”
The Devil Wears Prada focused on the overwhelmingly white world of magazine publishing. Anna Wintour surrogate Miranda had the power to make or break Andy’s career, but both were white women — one affluent, the other getting by financially, but both working with a similar amount of inherent privilege. Late Night complicated the narrative by introducing a young woman of colour (Kaling as Molly) as a subordinate to an incredibly successful older white woman (Katherine Newberry, played by Emma Thompson). The High Note, on the other hand, explores a different power dynamic, between a successful Black woman over 40, and a younger white woman who can’t understand why the latter won’t just take a risk.
A major part of Grace’s arc has to do with her being pressured to take on a 10-year Las Vegas residency, which would guarantee continued income for the next decade, and keep her legacy fresh. But it also means that she might stop growing as an artist, a point Maggie hammers home in a bathroom confrontation with Grace after a meeting with record executives. When Maggie suggests that Grace is taking the easy way out, the latter forcefully points out that as a Black woman in an industry stacked against her, she has fewer choices. She’s had to fight every step of the way to get where she is — maybe, she’s earned the right to sit back and coast. And though it’s an obvious point, it’s one that still rarely gets made in mainstream comedies.
“Maggie gets access that Grace doesn’t. Even though [Grace is] the more powerful one, she’s a Black woman,” Ganatra explained. “It was very much part of the discussion, not just in prep and in the writing, but also on-set with the actors. Nobody wanted a white saviour movie.”
But leaning into themes of racism and ageism isn’t the only way The High Note feels more modern than its predecessors. While The Devil Wears Prada showed Miranda Priestly as a mother concerned for the well-being of her two daughters (not to mention their access to Harry Potter galleys), the movie never really showed her interacting with said daughters. They’re in the story to highlight just how un-maternal she appears to the outside world. She’s married to her work (hence her divorce at the end), and mother to her employees, who both fear and respect her. Viewers also never saw the caregivers who likely took over so that Miranda could continue being a high-powered businesswoman making her employees’ lives hell. The High Note makes a special point of addressing the sacrifices ambitious women make for their careers through a twist for Grace that’s best not to ruin.
“I remember when I was about to get pregnant, people were saying, But your career's finally taking off. Why would you do this?” Ganatra said. “It was really scary for me cause I thought, What if I am just going back to square one? What if I screw up everything?
“Tracee and I talked about that a lot because she chose not to have children for her career and in her life,” she continued. “We talked about what women are asked to give up to pursue a career and what that means, and what those sacrifices do to them. Nobody says, ‘Have a baby. That's going to be great for your career.’”
Ganatra, who had a young child when she started filming The High Note, stressed that a key component of her success was having other mothers behind the scenes who understood what she needed in order to succeed.
“I'm not saying it's not challenging,” she said. “There were definitely struggles in work-life balance that I was figuring out, because this is the biggest movie I've done so far. But knowing that there were other women like our producer, who had a 2-year-old and who couldn't have been more supportive — that was what was so cool, how women behind the scenes support each other.”
With her films, Ganatra wants to bring that support out of the shadows, and into the forefront on-screen.
“With Late Night, I wanted more women to get into late-night comedy writing,” she said. [With The High Note], I want to encourage a young generation of women to become music producers. I read this statistic that there are only [seven] women in the history of the Grammys who have been nominated for Producer of the Year. Now, we just need more movies with a female president.”