‘The High Note’ Review
Who better to play an aging diva at the crossroads of a hugely successful singing career than the daughter of Diana Ross? Of course, nothing is ever that easy and if Tracee Ellis Ross wasn’t ultra-talented herself, the film wouldn’t work at all. Now please understand that The High Note, director Nisha Ganatra’s follow up to last year’s Late Night is excessively formulaic and predictable, but it’s a pleasure to watch Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) as singer Grace Davis and to hear her sing for (I believe) the first time on screen.
The film is from the perspective of Flora Greeson, a former personal assistant in the music industry, and it follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Fifty Shades franchise) as Grace Davis’ hard-working assistant. While spending most of her time running errands in her Chevy Nova for her celebrity boss, Maggie dreams of becoming a music producer. She studied music composition in college and listened to the radio growing up…and she bobs her head when listening to music she likes. So obviously she’s “qualified.” Maggie is as ambitious as she is lacking in self-confidence and experience.
The aforementioned crossroads Grace is facing has to do with choosing whether to record her first new album in a decade, or taking the safe and financially secure route of accepting a long-term Las Vegas residency. Her agent, Jack Robertson, is played by Ice Cube in full tough-guy mode, as he pushes Grace to bank the cash. Although her career is stuck in recycle gear with live albums and greatest hits, Grace longs to record new music, though she also understands the realities of the music business (and explicitly states the history for anyone not following along – including Maggie).
Maggie oversteps her position with Grace by urging her to write and record new songs. Maggie re-mixes some of Grace’s music and butts heads with the hotshot producer (played by Diplo) Jack brings in to turn Grace’s hits into thumping dance beats. “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question, it’s dope!” (Diplo nailing the punchline). June Diane Raphael adds her comic flair as Gail, the career moocher who lives in Grace’s pool house, and offers up advice to Maggie on how to milk the situation.
All it takes is a chance encounter at the local market for Maggie to have a career opportunity fall in her lap. She meets charming and smooth David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Waves), and after some classic music banter, she hears him sing and is convinced she can produce his music. The only problem…she lies to him about her profession and experience. Lying and misrepresentation may have played a key role in the music profession over the years, but it creates a real mess for Maggie and David.
When things go sideways for Maggie in every aspect of her life, she retreats to the security of her dad’s (Bill Pullman) humble home/studio on Catalina Island. He’s a DJ and the one who taught Maggie her love for music. His home also leads to the reconciliation that allows the film to move towards the ending it was meant to have. It should also be noted that Zoe Chao and Eddie Izzard have brief roles as Maggie’s roommate and a veteran pop singer, respectively…both talented performers underutilized here.
The film has a similar structure to The Devil Wears Prada, minus the biting dialogue and insightful commentary on a high profile industry. It briefly touches on ageism, sexism, and nepotism, as well as the ‘money vs art’ question, but the purpose here is entertainment, not enlightenment. True artists have an incessant need to create, often risking a comfortable position to stretch themselves…showing the iconic Capitol Records building a few times, and contrasting Maggie’s Nova with Grace’s Bugatti, doesn’t quite make the philosophical statement that we’d expect for a deeper message. Instead, it’s a feel-good movie. It’s comfort food, and it’s delivered with a crisp bow on top. Expect a romantic fantasy, where the love partner is music, and enjoy the talents of Tracee Ellis Ross. And let’s hope they got clearance from Michael B. Jordan for his mention.
The High Note is available on Amazon Prime.