THE HIGH NOTE (2020)
A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.
After chronicling the struggles of a comedy writer in Mindy Kaling’s Late Night (2019), director Nisha Ganatra steers into the struggles of being a woman in music. Scripted by newcomer Flora Greeson, The High Note is a disappointing vehicle for Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish) and Dakota Johnson (Suspiria).
Ross plays fading R&B singer Grace Davis (bearing a slight resemblance to the actress’ real-life mother Diana Ross in her shimmering gowns and diva attitude), who finds herself on the wrong side of 40. She’s beloved as an icon but no longer a relevant artist who releases new music. The final blow is being put out to showbiz pasture with a Las Vegas residency arranged by her manager (Ice Cube).
Dakota Johnson plays her assistant, Maggie, who caters to Grace’s every need whilst moonlighting as a wannabe music producer. She spends her downtime remastering Grace’s live album and fiddling aimlessly with soundboard knobs. No matter how good she may be, to Grace, she’s a minion who gets her coffee and picks up her dry cleaning.
During a meet-cute in an organic food shop, Maggie meets David (Waves’ Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a sweet singer-songwriter who just happens to need a talented producer. At a party in his prosperously large Los Angeles home, Maggie somehow convinces him to hire her despite having no proof that she knows what she’s doing. It’s from here audiences will need to suspend their belief. Maggie shouts a lot of generic producer-sounding jargon in a fully equipped recording studio she happens to have access to. The High Note takes no risks in its romance between David and Maggie; shamelessly relying on music industry clichés and soapy plotlines. It’s almost endearing.
Although Johnson is the lead, this film belongs to everyone else. Ross is fabulous as a demanding diva, who also appears to be flawed and warm. Every time she’s not around, it feels like a loss. In a movie filled with music clichés, Grace feels like a three-dimensional character. Elsewhere, June Diane Raphael (Grace and Frankie) is delightful yet underused as one of Grace’s airhead companions, Bill Pullman (The Coldest Game) is warm as Maggie’s widowed DJ father, and Eddie Izzard is a genius casting choice as a jaded musical legend. Izzard’s one scene features a poignant monologue that indicates this film could’ve easily been a braver movie about the cruelty of ageing in the entertainment biz.
The relationship between Grace and Maggie is far more interesting than the cliché and entirely uninteresting one between David and Maggie. Harrison’s David is charming with his bland Sam Cooke covers and studio nerves, but it feels like he’s being kept at arm’s length as a love interest. The script seems to believe the audience wants to see a boring musical meet-cute that lacks the edge of Beyond the Light (2014) and the drama of A Star is Born (2018). What audiences really want to see is women supporting women in a male-dominated industry, and to see a woman over-40 still thriving.
“In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a number one hit, and only one of them was black,” Grace tells Maggie. That statement is what The High Note should’ve been about. Strip back the weak romantic comedy filler and you have a smart dramedy about the failings of the music industry for women, minorities, and anyone over-35. The writer, Gleeson, was an assistant at Universal Music for many years, so it’s a shame she went more into the Nora Ephron-light rom-com territory and less in the musical The Devil Wears Prada (2006) workplace dramedy.
The High Note is a pleasant and unsurprising stroll through the music industry, however. It allows you to peer through a window into this world without allowing you to get to know anyone inside. Prepare to be angry that a good film is a few script drafts away from this dreary end-result.
USA • UK | 2020 | 113 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
The bonus features heavily on Tracee Ellis Ross’s performance as Grace, despite her character being wasted in the actual film. The behind-the-scenes featurette on screenwriter’s Gleeson background will just make you angrier about all the missed opportunities.
director: Nisha Ganatra.
writer: Flora Greeson.
starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard & Ice Cube.