‘The High Note,’ ‘Laurel Canyon’ documentary offer a music mix for at-home viewing

Actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. and director Alison Ellwood discuss their respective projects
Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as David Cliff and Dakota Johnson as Maggie Sherwoode in THE HIGH NOTE, a Focus Features release.   Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Credit: Glen WIlson

Combined ShapeCaption
Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as David Cliff and Dakota Johnson as Maggie Sherwoode in THE HIGH NOTE, a Focus Features release. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Credit: Glen WIlson

Credit: Glen WIlson

Although “The High Note” is ostensibly about Grace Davis, the 11-time Grammy winner who can still fill arenas with singalongs from her catalog, the music-focused dramedy is really about dreams and ambitions.

The movie’s theatrical release was scrapped due to coronavirus, but arrives May 29 on video on demand, including Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV and Xfinity (rated PG-13).

Grace, as played by “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross – herself music-spawn royalty as the daughter of Diana Ross – is glamorous and self-centered and often treats her beleaguered assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), like most celebrities stereotypically treat their assistants.

But despite the musical history that keeps her career on cruise control, Grace is artistically stifled. She wants to release a new album, not acquiesce to her well-meaning manager Jack (portrayed by a slick Ice Cube) and accept a lucrative, but ungratifying, Las Vegas residency.

Maggie, meanwhile, remains in Grace’s orbit to stoke her genuine ambition – to become a music producer (EDM hero Diplo makes a fun cameo as “R-Dubs,” a producer who turns Grace’s classic, “Bad Girl,” into a vapid beat-thumper). When Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in a Laurel Canyon grocery store through a music-centered conversation that two strangers would never have, she nonetheless has discovered a personal and professional mate.

4145_D019_00171_RC  Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis in THE HIGH NOTE, a Focus Features release.    Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Credit: Glen WIlson

Credit: Glen WIlson

Harrison, who portrays the earnest David, a musician who needs to find his creative soul, grew up in New Orleans surrounded by music, specifically, the legendary Marsalis family (Jason Marsalis was one of his instructors at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts).

Though he's received kudos for roles in recent dramas "Waves" and "Luce," Harrison, 25, also wanted to explore his musical predilections and found inspiration in Bradley Cooper.

“I saw ‘A Star is Born’ and was like, wow. I loved it. Seeing Bradley as a musician, it made me want to find my ‘A Star is Born.’ I wanted to be in a rom-com and I wanted to do a movie where it felt like all of the movies that I love – and I could play older than 18,” Harrison said with a laugh recently from his apartment in West Hollywood, California.

Harrison also received an education from super-producer Rodney Jerkins, the executive music producer on “The High Note.”

“We went to Rodney’s house every day to record,” Harrison said. “He taught me so much about storytelling. My dad would talk about how jazz was a conversation, but I had a hard time finding melody and words. Rodney showed me how to bare my soul and find fun and levity.”

The soundtrack to “The High Note,” featuring Ellis Ross’ “Love Myself” and Harrison performing the classics “You Send Me” and “Let’s Stay Together,” is also available May 29.

The Eagles, circa 1972, have a major role in the "Laurel Canyon" documentary premiering on Epix May 31, 2020. Photo: Contributed

From the mid-‘60s to early-‘70s, Laurel Canyon flourished as the creative nucleus of the music scene. The hilly enclave in the Hollywood Hills organically developed into a hub that, over the years, attracted a cadre of artists who would prove historically relevant: The Byrds, The Mamas & The Papas, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, The Doors, and even - as we learned from the new documentary, “Laurel Canyon” – The Monkees and Alice Cooper.

“It wasn’t a scene yet,” says David Crosby in the film. “It was just a better place to live…without the smog.”

Parts one and two of the docuseries – each episode is 80 minutes – premieres on Epix at 9 p.m. May 31 and 9 p.m. June 7, respectively.

In contrast to the similarly themed 2019 documentary, "Echo in the Canyon," which focuses on a specific period of the Laurel Canyon scene, this production presents a sweeping overview of the period.

Among the many highlights are images from renowned music photographer Henry Diltz (a vibrant presence here) and anecdotes from Micky Dolenz (Stephen Stills was almost one of The Monkees, but his snaggletooth wasn’t made for TV), Cooper (his band’s raucous music cleared out a club and the only remaining listener was Frank Zappa) and Graham Nash (who shares the sweet story behind “Our House,” which many fans already know but is still lovely to hear).

Jackson Browne, sporting a '70s-era mustache, was another familiar figure on the Laurel Canyon scene. Contributed

Alison Ellwood - who helmed 2013’s “History of the Eagles” and the upcoming Showtime documentary about The Go-Gos among other works - spent 2019 combing through thousands of hours of footage, both archival and new interviews with artists including Don Henley, Graham Nash and Jackson Browne.

The only artists she couldn’t get were Joni Mitchell – who has endured health issues lately – and Neil Young.

“They rarely do interviews, so I understood,” Ellwood said in a recent Zoom call. Carole King and James Taylor would have also been prime inclusions, but there is nothing disappointing about the array and depth of interviews included in the documentary.

Ellwood also incorporated some of the darker moments of the period – the Charles Manson murders and the deadly 1969 Altamont Speedway festival that featured The Flying Burrito Brothers, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, The Rolling Stones and other acts.

Joni Mitchell and Mama Cass Elliot were major names that came out of the Laurel Canyon scene. Their legacy is explored in the Epix documentary, "Laurel Canyon." Contributed

“It was part of the story. It’s part of the human story, too, that there’s always a darkness that creeps in,” Ellwood said. “The Manson murders and Altamonte cast a real shadow. You go from Woodstock feeling like we’re rising up to feeling defeated.”

But the overall vibe of the Laurel Canyon scene was one of harmony, and that’s what Ellwood hopes viewers will take from the documentary.

“It would be wonderful to think that young people understand what communities of like-minded creative people are capable of doing when it’s a nurturing environment instead of a competitive one,” she said, “and I think that’s what Laurel Canyon was, at least initially. It was extremely nurturing. There’s Mama Cass (Elliot) and this idea of experiencing something together and we’re kinda forced into that in a weird way now.”

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