Like a highly produced pop song that leaves your head the second it’s over, The High Note is pleasant enough while you’re experiencing it, but it refuses to linger after the credits roll. Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross lead a strong cast in this fun but forgettable film with the potential to be so much more. With this musical drama, director Nisha Ganatra remixes her last film — the also fun, but also forgettable, Late Night (2019) — trading in all the details of writing for a grand dame talk show host for the intricacies of working for a fortysomething diva.
Ross (who comes from music royalty herself) plays superstar Grace Davis, a singer whose decades-spanning popularity relies more on the old hits rather than any fresh material. She wants to record a new album, but her manager Jack (Ice Cube) and label execs are content with a multi-year residency in Las Vegas, a far more dependable source of revenue. But her long-time personal assistant Maggie (Johnson) thinks Grace can do more, and she sees an opportunity for herself too; she aspires to be a music producer, and mixing Grace’s next album could be her big break. Meanwhile, she meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an oh-so-charming musician who seems destined for bigger things than his current gig playing at crunchy L.A. grocery stores. Maggie thinks she might be able to help him reach the next level, though a plague of self-doubt infects Maggie, David, and Grace at key points in their respective careers.
The High Note plays like a duet where the singer you want to hear is basically relegated to a single verse and some backup vocals. Flora Greeson’s screenplay (her first) seems like it wants to balance between Grace and Maggie’s stories, but the latter gets the spotlight here. That tension is all the more painful when Ross crushes a heartbreaking monologue about how difficult it is for a black woman over 40 to succeed in the music business, when it’s clearly not much better in the film industry. The High Note might give Grace the better wardrobe (Jenny Eagan’s costumes are gasp-inducing and worthy of Ellis, who is a red carpet queen herself), but the focus is squarely on Maggie, the young white woman who is empirically less interesting than her co-star’s character. Johnson is typically fine here, but I wanted more Ross, who is demanding, dismissive, and absolutely magnetic — she is believable as one of the world’s biggest stars for every second she’s on screen, and not just because of her genetics.
Similarly, Harrison also deserves more time on screen here — and should be a much bigger star off screen too. Of course, you expect Diana Ross’s daughter to be able to sing, but when he croons in a perfectly smooth voice, it’s impossible not to swoon and think, “All this and he can sing, too?” He deserves credit for choosing (and succeeding in) challenging dramatic roles in films like last year’s Waves and Luce, but The High Note gives him a chance at a supporting part as a love interest. I wouldn’t complain if there was a resurgence of rom-coms in Hollywood and he was cast every few years as a romantic lead, but if 2020 has proven anything it’s that life is terribly unfair, so I am resigned to watching him merely star in award-worthy dramas.
If The High Note existed in a vacuum, it’d be a fine movie, perfect for half-watching on a Saturday afternoon and nodding along with the catchy original songs performed by Ross and Harrison, offering some interesting insights into the world of being a music producer and a personal assistant. But it feels designed too much in the mold of Late Night, and I’d love to see Ganatra do something even a little different than the older-successful-woman-reluctantly-serves-as-mentor-to-younger-employee-in-the-arts template. There are simply more stories to be told. The director has a great eye and gets solid performances out of a perfectly chosen cast, but there’s not much more here than that. It would be okay if it were all that The High Note seemed to be aiming for. But it’s as ambitious as its characters, while never living up to its potential.