The High Note
2019, PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Ice Cube, Eddie Izzard.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 5, 2020
There are three classic structures for a music industry drama: Either remake of a A Star is Born, do a comedy riff on A Hard Day's Night, or go for the throw-it-all-away, wasted-talent tale of a faded genius a la Country Strong/Crazy Heart. So the fact that The High Note takes the narrative of a rich and successful artist becoming richer and more successful is a hell of a swing for the fences.
Tracee Ellis Ross plays Grace Davis, a Diana Ross-style legendary singer who can still pull in the punters (even though the filmmakers have rejected the idea that it's in any way a direct homage, Ellis Ross' research into the archetype was probably easy, since the former Supreme is her mother). She's still packing out arenas, belting out the greatest hits, but that's almost ancillary to the real story, which is talented but underestimated intern Maggie Sherwoode (Johnson), who sees the untapped potential still left in Davis' creative tank. She puts up with her charmingly demanding boss, and increasingly clashes with Grace's manager (Ice Cube, the classic business-minded enabler), while starting to see the talent in a rising young artist, David Cliff (Harrison Jr., It Comes at Night, Waves, Luce).
Even though Flora Greeson's script for The High Note made the prestigious Black List of unproduced scripts in 2018, it feels like it fell out of an earlier decade (seriously, how does a two hour movie about the music business released in 2020 not even mention Spotify?). There's something weirdly dated about the idea that a Vegas residency marks the end of a creative career. Obviously, take that up first with Lady Gaga, but the reinvigorations of Rod Stewart and Elton John as artists coincidesdwith their long stays on the Strip. As for Diplo playing a Diplo-esque remixer with a tin ear, that's only slightly less awkward than supposed music professionals David and Grace impressing each other by naming songs about California, and treating "Hotel California" like it's some rare deep cut.
It's not that no one is trying, even though a clumsy aside about sexism, ageism, and racism in the music industry feels shoehorned into a narrative that often gets pretty white-savior-y (a problem not helped by Johnson yet again floating through the script rather than creating an actual character). That's the kind of text that needed to be threaded throughout the piece, not expositionally dumped in what is otherwise a pretty straight-ahead ... well, comeback narrative isn't quite right, since Grace hasn't exactly gone anywhere. It's all so blandly affable: Much like what we hear of Grace's music, it's like one of those filler tracks in a solid album. It's actually the filler skits - provided by Ice Cube, Raphael as Grace's sozzled housekeeper Gail, and especially Chao as Maggie's roommate, Katie, proving to be an expert in drive-by one-liners - that perk up proceedings. As for everything else, it's feelgood fluff, and that's fine - right up until an unbelievably coincidence-driven finale that almost capsizes the entire affair. Still, at its worst it still has the natural charm and skills of Davis and Harrison Jr. on which to coast.