Review: “The High Note”

In “The High Note,” comparisons between Tracee Ellis Ross (who plays fictional pop diva Grace Davis) and her mother (real life pop icon Diana Ross) are inevitable.  But Ross dominates in the role and makes it her own in a standout performance that makes “The High Note”—a pleasant if not particularly original comedy/drama about the music industry—worth watching.

In fact, Ross’s Grace Davis is technically a supporting player in the film, which is directed by Nisha Ganatra.  The main character is actually her personal assistant, Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson).  Maggie has put up with the long hours and outrageous demands of her boss for years in the hopes that the connections she’s made will eventually land her her dream job as a music producer.  When she meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), sparks fly between the two, but when she realizes he is also a talented musician in need of a good producer, she pretends to be a professional in the industry to help him out.  Meanwhile, Grace struggles with the obstacles placed in front of her as an older black woman in the music industry.  She wants to release new music, but her manager Jack (Ice Cube) and the people at her label believe it will be better and more profitable for her to take a Vegas residency and release remixes of her old hits.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. sings for Dakota Johnson in “The High Note”

“The High Note” moving from theatrical to on demand release due to the COVID-19 pandemic was definitely the right move; it’s fun, breezy comfort viewing that’s perfect escapism.  It also depicts the struggles women face in a male-dominated industry, whether they are in the spotlight like Grace or working behind-the-scenes like Maggie.  It’s important that this film was directed by and written by women (Flora Greeson penned the screenplay), but “The High Note” has similar identity issues to Ganatra’s previous film, last year’s “Late Night” (which followed women in the television industry).  The film acknowledges the issues that its characters face but resolves them in the easy way that only a fictional film can.  It doesn’t help that Grace—by far the most intriguing aspect of the story—isn’t the main focus.  The film eschews a story about a woman trying to reinvent herself in an industry that caters to young people in favor of the predictable rom-com about Maggie and David and Maggie pretending to be something she’s not, the ending to which you can see coming a mile away.  There is an aspect to the film you likely won’t see coming, however, a twist that is ridiculous but also pleasing in its ridiculousness, as it adds another layer to the story.

Johnson (who, like Ross, comes from Hollywood royalty) is great even though she isn’t the most interesting part of the movie, continuing to prove that she can deftly handle both comedy and drama.  She has great chemistry with the rest of the cast, including Harrison, whose performance is charming while also giving him the chance to show off his smooth vocals.  The cast also includes the likes of Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Zoe Chao, and June Diane Raphael, but the real scene stealers are Ice Cube and Ross.  Ice Cube unfortunately isn’t given nearly enough to do, but he still gets a lot of laughs as Grace’s money-grabbing manager who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with Maggie.  Meanwhile, Ross (who never seems to get enough recognition for her work) transforms a character who easily could have come off as clichéd into a living, breathing person.  She gets to be eccentric, showing off her flair for comedy, but also introspective; confident, but also unsure of herself.  She’s not a horrible boss to Maggie either; all of her issues with Maggie are actually pretty justified.  She doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as she should, but this role is definitely worthy of Ross’s many talents.

Tracee Ellis Ross as pop star Grace Davis in “The High Note”

And one of those talents is singing.  Ross belts out several new original songs in the film, including “Bad Girl,” “Stop For a Minute,” and the single “Love Myself.”  Harrison is also featured prominently on the pop and R&B-influenced soundtrack, which includes original numbers as well as covers of such classic songs as “You Send Me.”  And the songs are actually really good, catchy earworms that fit within the context of the movie but will also keep you humming after the credits roll.  It’s easily one of the best film soundtracks to come out in a while.

But not only is the music in the movie good, but the film also treats music with a sort of reverence, frequently paying homage to past artists and what makes them great.  Even Maggie is portrayed as someone who spouts music trivia unprompted.  It may be cheesy, but that sort of unbridled joy about the subject just makes “The High Note” that much more enjoyable to watch.

“The High Note” is now available to watch on demand. Runtime: 113 minutes. Rated PG-13. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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