The High Note
Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross star in Nisha Ganatra's latest comedy-drama.
As the enduring appeal of A Star is Born, the success of La La Land, and numerous rock biopics shows, Hollywood loves a tale of musical rags to riches.
In Late Night filmmaker Nisha Ganatra's latest comedy-drama The High Note, the formula of undiscovered star and impresario mentor is inverted and played with.
Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is an aspiring music producer with an encyclopedic knowledge of records that would impress the highest fidelity vinyl snob.
She works as an assistant for waning soul star Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a superstar diva well on the way to becoming a heritage act.
Although Maggie lives in awe of Grace, handing her dresses and unwanted smoothie concoctions in between sold-out gigs, she wants more for herself and her employer.
Grace's manager Jack (Ice Cube) and the millennial Ivy League guys who now run her record label see the bigger picture for Grace as that of an act whose days of chart relevance are probably over, but who can still rake in the cash with lucrative live and remix albums, as well as with a Las Vegas residency.
Much to Jack's chagrin, Maggie attempts to pitch her own mix of Grace's forthcoming record instead of the EDM atrocity created by handpicked producer Richie (Diplo in a cameo).
In between stints ensuring Grace's luxury car is waiting on the tarmac whenever her private plane touches down, Maggie meets handsome singer-songwriter David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and they bond, despite her lack of appreciation for his apparent love of "hokey" California soft rock.
After feigning obliviousness of Sam Cooke, David quickly shows her his muso credentials by sweetly singing You Send Me at his makeshift gig in the parking lot.
From that setup, you can probably guess The High Note's likely direction, exploring the importance of artistic and personal integrity and development in a gilded industry that's shallower than a desiccated puddle.
There are, however, twists that play with the predictable themes of following your dreams and love, and the thematic structure, which pitches Maggie as both ingenue and impresario, is more interesting than if we just followed Maggie's rise.
There is, however, a slight flatness to a script that seemingly can't decide whether it's aiming to tell a more in-depth satirical story about the record industry's uneasy relationship with the art of making music and a more straightforward romcom.
What rescues The High Note from slipping into forgettable middle-of-the road fare though is its cast.
As you'd expect from the daughter of one of music's original diva figures, Diana Ross, Ross perfectly depicts Grace as unapproachably famous yet human underneath.
Johnson (herself a scion of famous parents Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith) is ever-reliable in her now customary role as a naive young woman who discovers she's made of sterner stuff, and has decent, if not explosive, chemistry with Harrison.
There's also some nicely memorable small parts for Bill Pullman as Maggie's ageing DJ dad, and Eddie Izzard as a rocker in the Elton John vein.
Ultimately, The High Note won't enter the lore of great music films, either for satire like This Is Spinal Tap, or romantic heartstring-tugging like each iteration of A Star Is Born, but it's well-constructed, sometimes amusing, and entertains thanks to actors with a personal connection to the story they are telling.
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