Synopsis – A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.
My Take – In my opinion, musical dramas are generally of the hit or miss variety, probably because I don’t know much about music, and base my final judgement on the basis of the whole package rather than just some good beats. Keeping that in mind, I firmly believe that had this latest film from Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) met its initial scheduled theatrical release last month (instead of its current video on demand release), it would have crashed and burned.
Though, it does possess a selling point in the form of Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish), who gets to sing probably for the first time on screen while playing an aging diva with a hugely successful singing career, like her real life mother Diana Ross, the film is just excessively formulaic and predictable.
But considering the time we are living in right now, an old-fashioned effort that doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, a sometimes sweet and many times completely charming film about chasing dreams and making beautiful music in many different ways along the way, totally deserves all the praise coming towards it.
While it initially sets up as a ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ inspiration, it does take a much subtler and more humanly grounded approach to highlight the grit and hard work under the glossy surface of a performer’s life. Yes, the script by first-timer Flora Greeson is overly familiar, clichéd at times, and seems to know its ending too, but it also moves sharply and accomplishes an appealing rhythm of notes that have great feel-good qualities all over them.
The story follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), a twenty-something personal assistant of Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a world-renowned soul singer who hasn’t put out a record in 10 years but whose reputation with her legions of fans hasn’t suffered for it. But now, over 40 and married to her career, she isn’t sure of her relevance in the music industry and her oversized ego creates concern about making a comeback, especially with Grace’s longtime producer Jack (Ice Cube) pushing for a remix greatest hits album followed by a Vegas residency.
But unknown to them initially, Maggie secretly wants to be a music producer and is hoping Grace will give her the chance to produce a new album, but instead is stuck getting coffee and arranging schedules. But opportunity comes knocking when she encounters David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a charming, yet curiously wealthy performer who an amazing voice but seems reticent to perform beyond a circuit of low-level gigs. Believing that this her big chance, Maggie convinces David to let her produce his first album in her off-hours, without telling him who she works for and as what.
Though the film is obvious in every way, it not necessarily boring as it dances along. The film does start off a bit awkwardly at first, as the introduction of Grace and her considerable ego alongside Maggie and her somewhat starry-eyed, naïve approach to the music business takes a few scenes to find its footing. But once Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson settle into the relationship of their characters, the chemistry between them holds the remainder of the film together, especially when predictable familiarity takes control of the journey.
The spats between Grace and Maggie have mother/daughter, boss/employee dynamics. The realities of growing old in a young person’s industry will strike a chord with some. Certainly, the characters don’t run deep, but there are enough hooks to keep you guessing and blossoms exactly as you want it to in its musical sequences.
The genre trappings contribute to a feeling of predictability, in the sense you can basically tell where it’s going to go, but aside from a truly head-slapping third-act reveal, the rest of the film remains light, sweet, and pleasant. Bolstered perhaps more by its rock and soul history literacy, the film at least can boast three hum worthy original songs, the best of which is the duet “Like I Do” followed closely by “Bad Girls”.
The best part is that the film is not interested in understanding the ins and outs of the music business, nor does it try to tackle issues that are only hinted at, like the struggles that women (especially middle-aged black women) face in the music industry. Nor does it even pretend to accurately depict the inner workings of that industry. Instead, the film opts to be purely enjoyable and isn’t afraid to be a little corny, and thanks to its central performers, it’s entirely charming.
Sure, the characters are a bit stock, and with a less talented cast it might have been more forgettable. Tracee Ellis Ross easily steals most of these scenes with her impressive voice and downplays where others might search for more obvious camp, turning out a believable pop queen that never strays into caricature. The gorgeous Dakota Johnson continues to be delight and even has a small moment to showcase her melodic abilities.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. also shines in moments when he performing well-known covers, while Ice Cube is hilarious in a similarly oft-clichéd role. In other roles, Zoe Chao, June Diane Raphael, Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman are likable. On the whole, ‘The High Note’ is a charmingly old-fashioned musical drama filled with enough fun and heartwarming moments to guarantee a comfortable watch.
Directed – Nisha Ganatra
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 113 minutes