Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in The High Note.
Midway through The High Note,
a music-industry rom-com in the mold of 2019's Late Night,
(both directed by Nisha Ganatra), waning pop diva Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) laments the harsh reality for women in the music business.
"There have been only five women over 40 with a No. 1 hit," she tells her admiring assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson). "And only one of them was black."
This pivotal confrontation comes on the heels of a tense meeting with a handful of cocky record label execs who want Davis to agree to a residency in Vegas. It's guaranteed money for an artist of her stature, one who hasn't come out with a new record in a decade but who has at her disposal a reliable set list of hits. (She's something like an amalgam of Celine Dion, Jennifer Lopez and a down-the-road Beyonce).
Maggie is not only Davis' assistant but also a devoted fan, the daughter of a radio DJ and a singer. And she's agitating for Davis to record new music for two reasons: she knows Davis has more to say, for one thing, but she also wants to be the one to produce the new tracks.
The narrative contours of the film are remarkably similar to last year's Late Night,
the warm, predictable TV-industry rom-com written by and starring Mindy Kaling. The relationship between an aging successful female celebrity and an unlikely rising female talent are at the center of both films. But Late Night
was much funnier than The High Note,
the title of which prefigures its lack of authority and depth. (It might just as easily have been called Music and Lyrics
or Pitch Perfect.)
Much like Late Night,
the B-storyline is romantically inclined. Here, Maggie wants to boost her producing cred and convinces a young crooner whom she meets in a grocery store (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., from Waves
and It Comes at Night
) to let her take a crack at producing his original songs. As in other cinematic depictions of music producing, Maggie's work generally consists of adjusting a level or two and then bopping her head in satisfaction or reverie. In one scene, she gives a little pep talk to Harrison's David Cliff.
In spite of the script's relentless corniness, Johnson and Harrison have great on-screen chemistry as they veer into romance. Ditto Johnson and Ross, star of ABC's Black-ish
. But several of the individual scenes (the grocery store intro, to take one example), to say nothing of the significant late plot developments, are so cringeworthy that even the performances will be unable to prevent rolling eyes.
This sort of broad, formulaic storytelling is cinema's version of comfort food. If not for the A-listers, The High Note
would be indistinguishable from a Hallmark Channel offering. But the performances are indeed a cut above. From Ice Cube's diet-conscious manager who's got a nasty streak, but who really just wants to retire in Vegas; to Harrison's flirty but musically insecure David Cliff; to Ross' Grace Davis herself, the pop star living with the personal decisions of her past and the professional decisions of her future. It's not like you ever feel sorry
for Davis, a mega-millionaire with an L.A. mansion who treats her devoted assistant like dogshit — a late tongue-lashing is shocking in its succinct cruelty — but Ross, the real-life daughter of Diana Ross, plays a layered and believable pop icon.
The film will be available Friday at the video-on-demand platform of your choosing. And, like other new releases this year, it'll cost $19.99 at the outset. (For the record, that's an outrageous price point that I personally would surrender to only under very specific, extreme circumstances. And I hope the studios, or the streaming platforms, or whoever's responsible, don't get away with it for long.)
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