A shiny, modest melodrama about perfectly reasonable people
Strangely lacking in dynamic range, the genial music-industry film The High Note never really soars that high. This pleasant diversion is an emotionally auto-tuned study of talented L.A. people struggling with understandable reservations about how to advance their careers. There’s no hysteria anywhere, no unreasonable demands or unsettling meltdowns. It’s a shiny, modest melodrama about perfectly reasonable people having perfectly reasonable anxieties over their lofty professional aspirations.
THE HIGH NOTE ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Nisha Ganatra
Written by: Flora Greeson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard
Running time: 113 min
Part of the problem is Black-ish. Every week on that hit TV show, Tracee Ellis Ross delivers a winning mix of broad physical comedy and side-eye under-breath digs as Rainbow Johnson, a no-nonsense anesthesiologist mother of five. In The High Note, she’s Grace Davis, a no-nonsense middle-aged pop star with a complacent, clear-eyed look at her wheel’s-up tour-heavy life and a pretty good sense of humor to boot. She’s been on the covers of Rolling Stone and People, and looms large in a Spotify billboard that overlooks Sunset Boulevard. “I’ve done Oprah so many times,” she sighs, and it comes off not as humble-brag but as fulfillment of a cultural duty. Ross can’t shake her competent-mom aura. She’s just not a bitch.
The irony, of course, is that Ross is the daughter of ’70s über-diva Diana Ross, so it’s simultaneously a brilliant idea and a terrible idea to cast her as a long-in-the-tooth superstar. We’re told that Grace Davis started churning out R&B crossover hits when she was 18, and yet her concerts, her outfits, and her entire demeanor come off as very age-appropriate. Her closest real-world analogue would be Mariah Carey, which is a helpful comparison. Carey still looks and sounds as though she’s vainly clinging to her youth. Despite knowing all the lyrics to TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Grace Davis looks and sounds like she’s always targeted Baby Boomers. And if she hasn’t, it sure seems like she’s evolved smoothly into that role. Where’s the high-wattage sweaty desperation?
The film presumes Grace’s musical prowess, leaning hard on a brief, manic montage of chart-topping snippets performed to packed arenas of cheering fans. She refers to her boatload of Grammys and has an MTV Moon Man statuette in her bedroom. Everyone also talks about Grace’s upcoming single “Bad Girl,” a cover of a 1967 Lee Moses song. That’s how current she is. But whatever.
The High Note is actually more about her personal assistant Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), who’s spent the past three years running around getting Kleenex and Kotex for her boss. A walking music encyclopedia, Maggie is the kind of person who listens to Maxine Brown belt out Carole King and thinks the Eagles are cheesy. She wants to be a producer, and spends her nights and weekends secretly re-mixing Grace’s still-in-the-works live album. She also thinks Grace should release original music, something the former hitmaker hasn’t done in a decade.
“Nobody gives a shit about new material,” snorts Jack (Ice Cube), Grace’s surly longtime manager. “All I want to do is play it safe so we can stack some money.” He keeps smacking down Maggie’s suggestions, insisting that Grace should pull a Celine Dion and accept Caesar’s Palace insistent offer for a 10-year residency in Las Vegas. Grace doesn’t disagree, but hates to admit that her best days are behind her.
So Maggie is inexperienced and Grace is afraid. How to triangulate? Enter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a charming singer-songwriter with a John Legend vibe. He tries to pick up Maggie at a local hipster grocery store before going outside and performing for a small market crowd. Yeah, I don’t get it either, but apparently this store hosts live concerts while people inside buy organic popsicles and kale.
David is the kind of guy who hosts pool parties in the middle of a Wednesday at his palatial Hollywood Hills home. What does he do, and how can he afford this place? No idea, and no one asks, until a corny plot twist explains it away towards the end. David keeps talking about DJ’ing at bar mitzvahs and how he recorded a demo in his wine cellar, but somehow he’s too shy to go pro. Maggie offers to produce his tracks, and in turn begins a bumpy journey towards fulfilling her destiny as well as Grace’s.
The High Note glides by on its SoCal charm. Dakota Johnson—also, like Ross, a scion of the fame machine—brings a winningly laconic earnestness, a chill enthusiasm that feels uniquely native to Los Angeles, and it helps make this sun-kissed fantasy feel even more trance-like. Director Nisha Ganatra generates an easy rapport among her actors, and lenses their California antics with a lush expressionism: silhouetted palm trees, solar flares, billowing curtains, hazy glows. One nighttime rendezvous involves an intimate chat at a poolside fire pit, crickets quietly chirping in the darkness. Everyone’s striving in The High Note, but it’s the low-key moments that really sing.
Focus Features intended to release The High Note in theaters on May 8. You can now buy it on most streaming platforms. Cost is $19.99.