Too many female-led comedies focus on the romance of it all. The chick flick, the rom-com – they’re terms that are interchangeable. But there is so much more depth of emotion that women feel, so many more nuanced relationships that women have, that are rarely show on the big screen. Only a handful of so-called “rom-coms” dig into them, but they’re often mislabeled because it’s less about the romance, or even the comedy, then it is about the women at the center of them.
One of the more recent films to nail the complexity of female relationships was Nisha Ganatra‘s 2019 dramedy Late Night, which followed Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling as a reluctant late-night show employer and employee pairing who become close friends. Ganatra seeks to repeat this formula with The High Note, a flashy comedy/drama that stars Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson in those roles, but now set in the glamorous music industry. But with newcomer Flora Greeson on the script and none of Kaling’s winking humor to drive the drama, Ganatra’s attempt to recapture the success of her previous female-led workplace dramedy unfortunately falls a bit flat.
Dakota Johnson plays Maggie Sherwood, the intrepid personal assistant to Grace Davis, a beloved pop diva who has passed her prime. Stuck playing the same shows and singing the same hits over and over again, Grace wants to record a new album, despite her whole team persuading her to settle for a cushy Vegas residency. Except for Maggie. Maggie is an aspiring music producer who dreams of producing Grace’s new album, and decides to prove herself by taking on an up-and-coming singer-songwriter in secret, a charismatic crooner named David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who had hit on her at the grocery store. Maggie soon struggles to balance her personal assistant duties with her producing project and blossoming romance with David, which irks Grace, who finally takes notice of her longtime suffering assistant.
The High Note is trying to be a mixture of The Devil Wears Prada and Once, but it doesn’t quite capture the charm of either, as the film lazily hits all the beats of the too-frequently told story of the pressures and sacrifices of becoming a music star. The film becomes so occupied by the generic music industry narrative and by its rote love story that it brushes all too quickly past its most compelling element: the relationship between Grace and Maggie.
A longtime fan, Maggie has been happily doing Grace’s bidding for the past three years, but has only been rewarded with the diva occasionally remembering her name. Despite that, Maggie is determined to prove herself a capable film producer so that she can produce Grace Davis’ next album and show the rest of the world that Grace is not a has-been. But the plot gets lost in Maggie’s side adventures and romance with David, and in The High Note‘s many, many montages.
Nearly every important development in Maggie and Grace’s relationship plays out through montage — whether it’s in how swift Maggie has become in sensing Grace’s mood changes as Grace embarks on her latest tour, or in how Grace notices that Maggie starts to slip once she tries to balance her music producing side project with her daily duties. The two share a few deep conversations about Grace’s many life regrets and the feeling that her obscurity is fast approaching, but these rare insights into the vulnerable diva’s life are less about her than they are about Maggie. The High Note holds Grace from a distance, keeping her on the pedestal that Maggie views her on, which may be accurate to their relationship, but doesn’t help the film give Maggie and Grace equal footing narratively. The High Note becomes less about Grace re-embracing her music career and more about Maggie living out her own ambitions, which lends to the movie’s imbalanced tone.
Perhaps The High Note relies too much on Tracee Ellis Ross’ music lineage, which inevitably bleeds into the film. But Ross’ Grace Davis is only superficially similar to Ross’ mother, Diana Ross, in her glamour and high-flying career. Instead of delving too far into the parallels, The High Note leans into the superficiality of it all — the narrative tropes, the music industry success story, the rom-com genre — all while Ganatra shoots like a sleek ad for living in California (I lost count of the number of warm, woozy bokeh shots of L.A. at sunset).
The saving grace of the film is the performances. Ross is equal turns commanding and fragile as Grace Davis, a megastar who is grappling with her creeping obscurity amid the fast-moving music industry that has little time for female artists over 40. And Ross’ comedy chops are a welcome part of the film, which struggles to decide whether it’s more of a broad comedy or a dramedy; Ross walks that balance with precise joke deliveries and cold comebacks that aren’t quite Streep in Devil Wears Prada, but pretty high up there. Johnson is an anomaly here: her subdued acting style suits the arthouse films she frequently impresses in, but come off a little too naturalistic for more humorous parts of The High Note. Still, she excels in awkward cringe comedy that she perfected in the 50 Shades of Gray (I stand by the take that Johnson was secretly giving us a comedic performance for the ages in that awful series). Meanwhile, there is a fun addition of Ice Cube playing the typical materialistic music manager, though the actor seems to be solely hanging out in the broad comedy genre. Joining him in that genre is June Diane Raphael as the hilariously ditzy Gail, Grace’s former personal assistant who gives Maggie a sad view of her possible future.
A nice surprise is Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who for the first time in his stellar early career, gets to show off how charismatic and cute he is (and how talented a singer he is) without playing a slightly unhinged or psychologically besieged teen. If anything, The High Note at least makes the good case that Harrison is only at the beginning of what will hopefully be a meteoric rise to movie stardom; he’s so charming and watchable. Harrison is the smooth up-and-coming singer that Maggie takes under her wing, lying to him that she’s a big-time music producer, and their scenes are sweet and entertaining, though they take away the focus from the more compelling relationship between Maggie and Grace.
Like many a music industry movie, The High Note hates modern popular music and idolizes the classics, which Maggie has a near-encyclopedic knowledge of, but which the film rarely taps into unless it’s to kick off another moody montage. The High Note sets up a lot of interesting threads — Grace’s uncertainty about her music career, Maggie’s workplace anxieties, David’s insecurity, how the music industry can chew up and spit out any meaningful relationships among women — but doesn’t follow through with them. The High Note points out the artifice of the music industry, without being aware of how much artifice it’s already steeped in.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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