One of the things I admired about director Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night, was that some of its insights into the way male-dominated late night talk shows operated behind the scenes seemed pretty on the mark (other times, it unfortunately felt remarkably clueless about how television in general works). Remarkably, I have nearly identical praise and criticism of her new movie, The High Note, which shifts the setting to the music world, an industry frequently unkind to that specific cross-section of women of color over the age of 40—characteristics that describe Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, the real-life daughter of Diana Ross).
Let me first get this out of the way: Ross is not playing a variation of her world-famous mother. That being said, I think growing up with a front-row seat to her mother’s career highs and lows makes her uniquely qualified to play the part of a superstar singer whose best years and biggest hits are likely behind her. For roughly 10 years, Davis has performed various versions of a greatest hits set that has kept her career strong, if not particularly relevant. She afraid to attempt to record new music because she knows that only five woman over the age of 40 have ever had number-one albums, and only one of them was black (by my calculations, that would be Janet Jackson). So at some point, Davis shelved artistic integrity in favor of staying popular, and that’s just fine by her long-time manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube), who does not come across favorably in this story despite a final-act rally.
One of the biggest problems with The High Note is that, believe it or not, Davis is not the lead character of the story (written by Flora Greeson). That honor belongs to her belabored, under-appreciated 20-something personal assistant of three years Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who really yearns to be a music producer and spends her spare time in the studio tinkering with Grace’s long-in-the-works live album without her boss’ knowledge. Any time she expresses any opinion on Grace’s music or career direction, Jack shuts her down and belittles her for overstepping. So while the trials and tribulations of a personal assistant might make for an interesting movie, her struggles seem fairly pedestrian next to the constant internal struggle of a female singer battling every prejudice under the sun. And Ross shines to such a degree in both her performance sequences and in smaller, more intimate moments, that when the film cuts away from her to focus on Maggie, things get much less engaging.
Not to knock Johnson here—she’s not terrible by any stretch—but she is the least interesting thing in The High Note, partly because she surrounded by much more interesting supporting players, including the always-terrific Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, Waves) as hopeful singer-songwriter David, who Maggie sees potential in, even getting him in the studio to record a few songs under her direction. Zoe Chao (most recently seen in Downhill) plays Katie, Maggie’s opinionated roommate/best friend; and Bill Pullman shows up briefly as Maggie’s radio DJ father in a superfluous sequence that is meant to show us where her love of great music stems. It adds nothing to her character in our minds except that she has a cool dad. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Eddie Izzard appears for one scene as a rock star that Maggie asks a favor of, and Diplo shows up in a weird but funny scene as an obnoxious remix producer reworking a classic Grace Davis track for a possible remix album.
It doesn’t take long for The High Note to become two very different movies about changing the course of one’s life. For Maggie, it simply marks her first actual career choice, albeit it into a field for which she has a true passion. But for Grace, the decision is more meaningful and with potentially far greater consequences that she has to find the courage to not care about. She has written new, substantial songs that tell her story, and she wants them heard. That’s the story I cared about; that’s the movie that should have been made. And in those moments when the film allows the singer to be something more than just another generic horrible boss, it works.
Unfortunately, the film seems to care more about ridiculous plot twists in the final act that are not just silly, they are pointless and foolish. I was probably more on board for most of this film than even I realized, but it didn’t take long for the filmmakers to throw a hand grenade into the works as things were wrapping up. I’m not one to reject a movie outright just for a bad ending, but I’m willing to make an exception for The High Note.
The film premieres On Demand beginning Friday, May 29.
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