If you are looking for a pleasant trip to sunny California where the sun is always shining, the people are always beautiful, and there is music constantly in the air, look no further than Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note.
The film follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), an aspiring music producer who has an unquenchable desire and passion for music. She works for music legend Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross); who in this fictitious world is a superstar on the level of Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, and Cher. She is presented in the film as a mixed bag of a number of Black icons from numerous decades— but ultimately she is Tracee Ellis Ross if she decided to be a musician.
Their stories form a bridged narrative with both moving in similar directions with different motivations. Maggie wants to produce music, specifically, she wants to produce for Grace. She is a lover of the artist’s voice versus the synthetic sound the music industry is heading towards. Grace is struggling to remain autonomous, grappling with the realities of potentially outgrowing her music but still stuck performing the same thing over and over. Her manager/best-friend Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) encourages the safe choice of setting up a Vegas residency for Grace, but she sees it as a slow death sentence.
Directed by Ganatra and written by Flora Greeson, the film has some odd similarities to Ganatra’s last directorial effort The Late Night. The two films are distractingly similar, which strips away any sort of suspense or surprise the film has to offer— although, there is one plot reveal that will certainly have you screaming. The film is simple: older career woman is in a rut, where fading into obscurity is a constant looming threat until a plucky subordinate decides to take matters into her own hands and shake things up. The two bicker but ultimately share the same feelings, and eventually an unbreakable bond is formed to create a mutually beneficial friendship. The structure is a little too been-there-done-that, but the execution is still fine and entertaining.
Although the movie doesn’t dig too deep into the mechanics that are involved in the music business, the story does accurately speak to key struggles that are universally understood. It is about going after what you want, even if there are risks. Maggie struggling to get off the ground, while Grace is trying not dive head first into concrete.
The one major issue this film has is that Grace Davis doesn’t have nearly as much screen time or character development as Maggie. In fact, much of this film is crafted from Maggie’s perspective. We do not get any private moments with Grace that don’t involve her discussing her relationship with Maggie or the scenes don’t go beyond her simply expressing some desire to create new music to whomever she is speaking to. There is just a lack of detail and attention paid to Grace that gives some of her key moments a soft landing. For instance, Grace expresses anxiety over being an older Black woman in the music industry and how slim her chances are to release new hits. That scene in question doesn’t get developed or called back to. Her struggles, although adequately acted out by Tracee Ellis Ross, are secondary to Maggie’s.
Perhaps, this could be forgiven if the narrative did not end up centring the one and only white character in the film. Johnson has nice enough chemistry with everyone and is compelling to watch. However, the role of Maggie could have gone to a woman of colour and the movie would have been better for it, as it would be another layer to Maggie’s struggles and how she relates to Grace. We as an audience are already at an arm’s length from Grace’s story, and it’s strange to have the distance exacerbated that by not centring her story more or sadly, centring our plucky protagonist with sufficiently less barriers in her life.
The rest of the ensemble are great. Ice Cube is a welcome presence no matter what he is in. Zoë Chao is in serious need of more leading roles because with what little she has she does a fantastic job. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is incredibly charismatic and is bursting at the seams with leading man energy. In fact, he steals much of the shine in his scenes with Johnson as he carries much of the romantic tension and chemistry between them. However, the crown jewel of the film is Tracee Ellis Ross, who miraculously does a lot with so little. If there is an alternative film that follows Grace from beginning to end, I would like to see it. #ReleaseTheGraceDavisCut
Fortunately, The High Note is a sweet and impassioned take on the music industry and about career-driven women who are determined to make their dreams a reality. Its a fun and delightful ensemble of characters and actors that light up the screen with their charm and charisma. Tracee Ellis Ross proves to be a formidable acting force and Johnson proves again to be a capable lead. Overall, it is a pleasant enough film that will leave you satisfied and reaching for your phone so you can boot up Spotify to listen to the movie’s official soundtrack.
The High Note is avaliable on VOD on May 29th
by Ferdosa Abdi
Ferdosa (she/her) is a lifetime student of cinema. Three of her current favourite films are: Addams Family Values, Cinderella (2015), and Emma. (2020). On Twitter you can see her support women-led cinema, her ongoing love/hate relationship with Disney, her totally healthy obsession with Eva Green, and her great admiration for Guillermo del Toro.