THE HIGH NOTE (2020)
SYNOPSIS: Set in the dazzling world of the LA music scene comes the story of Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a superstar whose talent, and ego, have reached unbelievable heights, and Maggie (Dakota Johnson), her overworked personal assistant. While stuck running errands, Maggie still aspires to her childhood dream of becoming a music producer. When Grace’s manager (Ice Cube) presents her with a choice that could alter the course of her career, Maggie and Grace come up with a plan that could change their lives forever.
As far as feel-good movies go, ‘The High Note’ hits all the right notes.
Like director Nisha Ganatra’s earlier ‘Late Night’, her latest is another story about two women: an older, accomplished yet jaded superstar, and an idealistic underling chasing her dreams.
The former is a fictional R&B diva named Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a multiple Grammy Award-winning musical icon who goes from city to city performing her No. 1 singles to packed arenas. She hasn’t put out a new record in a decade, and is contemplating a residency in Las Vegas arranged by her hard-charging business manager (Ice Cube) of more than 20 years.
The latter is Grace’s personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), a longtime fan who relishes the opportunity of being able to work for her. Maggie also aspires to be a music producer herself, and has been spending her time secretly tinkering with the mix on Grace’s upcoming live album. She knows Grace has been writing some new material, and thinks her idol can do much better than choose a path that would most certainly lead to artistic obsolescence.
This is as much Maggie’s story about following her dreams as it is Grace’s, each fraught with her own insecurities. On one hand, Maggie is all too eager to forge her own producing career with David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young soul singer she has a meet-cute with in a grocery store as Phantom Planet’s ‘California’ is playing on the sound system; and on the other, Grace is struggling to overcome her own fears as a middle-aged African-American female singer (“In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a number one hit and only one of them was black,” she says).
Than undercut each other, the multiple storylines complement each other, offering up duelling perspectives of two individuals at different stages of their career in the music business who are both faced with the choice of following their own path. Certainly, you could also say the same about David, who is initially reluctant about stepping into the recording studio and has to be coaxed and reassured by Maggie of his own talent, but it is ultimately around Maggie and Grace that writer Flora Greeson has chosen to anchor her narrative around.
Chances are that you won’t mind it one bit, not least because both Johnson and Ross are such luminous actresses in their respective roles. Johnson, whom most will remember for daringly baring it all in the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ trilogy, gives perhaps her most winning performance as the airy yet focused Maggie. She and Ross make ideal screen partners, injecting real pathos into the symbiotic relationship that their characters share but only acknowledge much later on.
Whereas Maggie and Grace share the more compelling dynamic in the film, those who like their rom-coms sweet yet sensitive will no doubt enjoy the scenes between Johnson and Harrison. There is palpable chemistry between them, and their time making music together in the studio will give you great vibes. Ditto the excellent supporting cast, including a very funny Ice Cube as Grace’s agent, June Diane Raphael as Grace’s catty house manager, and Bill Pullman as Grace’s aging hipster dad whose interest in music sparked Maggie’s own from a young age.
So while it may not be as smart as ‘Late Night’, Ganatra keeps ‘The High Note’ consistently breezy and engaging throughout, deftly balancing the various plotlines to give depth and detail to the characters within. It is telling how much you’ve been won over when you don’t even mind the late twist that adds some frankly unnecessary soap-opera schmaltz. In these depressing times, we frankly hardly mind the feel-good high road which this generous-hearted movie delivers, even if it is ultimately intended as light escapism.
Review by Gabriel Chong