'The High Note': Film Review

Closer to middle C but hummable enough.
5/29/2020

Tracee Ellis Ross plays a superstar singer at a career crossroads and Dakota Johnson is the hardworking personal assistant aiming to be a music producer in 'Late Night' director Nisha Ganatra's latest.

After chronicling the struggles of a talented junior writer to be seen and given a deserving opportunity by a ferocious female titan of their field in Late Night, director Nisha Ganatra steers the wish-fulfilment scenario from network television to the music industry in The High Note. While the script by newcomer Flora Greeson doesn't have the amusing commentary on race, class and sexism of Mindy Kaling's screenplay for the earlier film — let alone Emma Thompson's regally acerbic bite — the Focus Features release from Working Title does have much to recommend it, at least during these lean times.

Top of that list of assets would be Tracee Ellis Ross as an R&B superstar on the unforgiving side of 40, whose career trajectory bears a passing resemblance to the later solo years of her mother, Diana Ross, along with the cascading tresses and shimmering sequin gowns. Her Grace Davis is a self-absorbed diva with just enough warmth and realness to keep us in her corner as she takes the blows of an industry eager to put her out to the pasture of a Las Vegas residency.

As Maggie, the tireless personal assistant who anticipates Grace's every need while secretly working in her downtime on remixes of her classic hits, Dakota Johnson slots comfortably into the well-worn screen mold of the smart, resourceful underling to a demanding female boss occupied by countless women before her, among them her mother, Melanie Griffith, in Working Girl.

Maggie doesn't do much beyond twiddling a few soundboard knobs, bopping her head intently and spouting regulation studio-speak like "Let's take it from the top." Yet somehow we buy her as an innately gifted music producer. She even outshines Diplo, in a cameo as a smug star remixologist, whose synthetic beats can't rival the integrity of Maggie's soulful grooves. Grace validates her work but declines to encourage her, bluntly reminding her she's a minion.

A glossy widescreen package peppered throughout with catchy tunes, The High Note is predictable until it becomes borderline ridiculous, wrapping up its breezily resolved conflicts in a neat-and-tidy bow in the feel-good final act. But even a formulaic patchwork of repurposed ideas from better movies can be fun. It makes sense that Greeson's screenplay was originally titled Covers when it made the 2018 Black List. The movie doesn't have the savvy command of the genre that distinguished another music-industry melodrama, Gina Prince-Bythewood's irresistibly entertaining Beyond the Lights. But it's the kind of plush, pleasurable comfort viewing that goes down as easily as a favorite artist's hits compilation.

A zippy opening sequence recaps Grace's celebrated career with a montage of Rolling Stone and Interview covers, platinum records, Grammy Awards (11, Grace won't let anyone forget), Apple Music playlists and Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s. At the same time, Maggie darts around Los Angeles, picking up dry-cleaning, prescriptions and juice-bar orders among countless other errands before swapping out her rust bucket for Grace's luxury sports car and heading to Burbank Airport to meet her private plane. Grace tartly informs her she's six minutes late, and just in case there's any doubt as to who's boss, she takes the wheel as they head back to her palatial white mansion.

Grace has released a greatest hits collection and a live album and her label is now preparing for a live greatest hits set; she's in a recycling rut though she's quietly hankering to work on new material. Only Maggie seems sensitive to that desire, but Grace's manipulative longtime manager Jack (Ice Cube) has the record company in his corner with the easy-money, low-stress lure of 10 years on autopilot in Vegas. Grace still loves touring. She's a hard taskmaster with her backup singers and her band, something we see in a too-quick whirlwind of U.S. tour dates early on (most of which is in the trailer).

Meanwhile, Maggie, who shares an apartment in the Asbury Building with her good-humored hospital intern pal Katie (Zoë Chao), sneaks studio time and works at home on her remix of Grace's hit "Bad Girl." She meets smooth dreamboat David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) while grocery shopping at a local hipster emporium and they bond over classic California songs. Maggie inherited her encyclopedic knowledge of music from her widowed radio DJ dad Max (Bill Pullman); she initially dismisses David as a lightweight because he feigns ignorance of Sam Cooke. But when she hears him sing at an outdoor gig, she's impressed.

While David plays community centers and bar mitzvahs and enlists his no-name friends as producer and musicians on his demos, he throws lavish pool parties at a swanky home that suggests considerable wealth, so something doesn't add up. Still, Maggie is too busy talking up her bogus producing credentials to ask questions. She starts working with him on new songs and sharper recordings, trying to maintain a professional distance despite the inevitable blossoming of romance. As soon as we hear that Ariana Grande dropped out as the opener for Grace's album release party, the plan for her replacement becomes clear.

For no discernible reason in plot terms, a squandered Eddie Izzard shows up in a brief appearance as a music contemporary of Grace's who gets on board with Maggie's machinations, which are designed to spotlight both David's talent and her own. But lies are exposed and trust betrayed, sending Maggie skulking off to lick her wounds with Max on Catalina Island. And what better place than a sleepy boating community for everybody to converge and find forgiveness in what turns out to be a very small world?

It's at this point that the film lurches definitively into fairy-tale territory that's almost endearingly silly. There are lip-service feminist nods to the exclusionary nature of the music industry for women over a certain age, especially women of color, and to the boys' club that gets access to the recording studio mixing booth. But this is not a movie that goes anywhere near deep on industry politics.

What keeps it on track is the well-meshed ensemble. As Grace, Ross is brittle, ungracious and not averse to belittling Maggie when the assistant gets ahead of herself. But there's also softness and vulnerability in her characterization. Grace responds to having a friend, albeit a socially inferior one, who respects her and believes in her talent, rather than just fawning on command like her archly egocentric housekeeper Gail (June Diane Raphael) or looking after his own interests, like Ice Cube's territorial yet mostly genial Jack. (This is no place for villains or insurmountable frictions.) Ross is also funny, in a movie that seems to want to be a comedy but never quite commits. If there's meant to be a wink behind Grace's supposed sexual tangle with an unseen Michael B. Jordan, it's unclear.

Johnson's relaxed, unassuming presence is a nice fit here, even if she undersells the drive of a hungry music-biz dreamer. Her scenes with Ross convey an enjoyable shifting dynamic, with Maggie cautiously inching closer while Grace keeps testing her, moving in and then pulling back with a withering reinforcement of the hierarchy. And Johnson and Harrison have sparkling chemistry, though compared to his riveting work in, say, Waves, playing the honey-voiced hunk doesn't require much of the actor. Both Harrison and Ross acquit themselves well on vocals, even if none of their songs measure up to the soundtrack's choice vintage cuts.

Theresa Guleserian's production design and Jenny Eagan's costumes mix up high and low L.A. style to pleasing effect, and DP Jason McCormick's camerawork is slick and agile, even if he perhaps overindulges in the mellow SoCal afternoon lens flare.

It was a shrewd touch to make Maggie the daughter of a DJ with a thing for covers. That means in addition to immortal cuts like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings' "How Long Do I Have to Wait for You," there are cool blasts of Aretha Franklin doing Bobby "Blue" Bland, The Staples Singers doing The Band, P.P. Arnold doing Cat Stevens, Donny Hathaway doing John Lennon and, bless her, Cher doing Bob Dylan.

Production companies: Working Title, in association with Perfect World Pictures
Distributor: Focus Features (VOD)

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Zoë Chao, Eddie Izzard, June Diane Raphael, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson, Diplo
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Screenwriter: Flora Greeson
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Executive producers: Nathan Kelly, Alexandra Loewy
Director of photography: Jason McCormick
Production designer: Theresa Guleserian
Costume designer: Jenny Eagan
Music: Amie Doherty
Music supervisor: Linda Cohen
Executive music producer: Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins
Editor: Wendy Greene Bricmont
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera Hallman

Rated PG-13, 113 minutes