Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross star in this glittery story about a singer and her overworked, but passionate assistant. Johnson plays Maggie, an aspiring music producer working as the legendary singer Grace Davis' personal assistant. Grace's star is not shining quite as bright as it used to, but she still tours around the country and performs for enthusiastic fans. Maggie wants Grace to produce new music while her manager wants her to take on a residency in Las Vegas, which Maggie considers to be the death of Grace's career.
The High Note is a strangely plotless film, but it's certainly at its best when focusing on the dynamic between the two strong female leads. Ross and Johnson have electric chemistry and both are equally watchable, even when they aren't allowed much to do by Flora Greeson's unambitious script. Johnson's small gestures make Maggie a rounded, human character and turns in a surprisingly funny performance while Ross brings a lot of raw charisma and weariness to her role as Grace.
Nisha Ganatra's film chooses to make Maggie the focus of The High Note by giving her a mysterious new beau David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), but it's really Grace who is much more interesting as the former superstar whose days in the spotlight are coming to an end. The film occasionally tries to tackle important topics such as ageism and sexism in the music industry but they remain afterthoughts in a film that is much more interested in transforming into a full-blown romantic comedy. It's a shame this stuff is never particularly interesting although Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes for a dreamy and very capable romantic interest for Maggie.
Ganatra's previous film was the Emma Thompson-Mindy Kaling -double hander Late Night which similarly featured a mismatched female duo and the idea of an older woman having to give up the spotlight. While The High Note is much more glittery and almost veers into musical territory, Late Night tackled its themes better and with more heart than what The High Note can offer. Despite trying really hard to be entertaining and funny, something makes The High Note a little cold. It might be the fact that this is still a story about two women completely surrounded by men making decisions for them and they never quite manage to break free of that.
The supporting roles are filled with equally charismatic and talented actors, most of whom seem to be on autopilot. Ice Cube is perfectly fine as Grace's manager Jack and Eddie Izzard gets in a couple of funny scenes as another artist Dan Deakins. Bill Pullman shows up briefly as Maggie's scruffy father, but this is a film that seems to be filled to the brim with familiar faces but also one that can't seem to make enough room for them or use them appropriately. June Diane Raphael is a genuine highlight and manages to hold her own in a role that is small, but memorable.
Similarly, to Gurinder Chadha's Blinded By The Light, The High Note borrows much from musicals with its endless delivery of preppy pop songs but doesn't seem to want the commitment of actually becoming one. A glitzy, full-blown musical would have been more entertaining and probably able to communicate many of the film's themes better than the clumsy dialogue here can. It's not that The High Note is bad because it isn't; in fact, it's quite charming thanks to the two central performances, but it just had the potential to be so much better and engaging.
Dir: Nisha Ganatra
Scr: Flore Greeson
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube
Prd: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
DOP: Jason McCormick
Music: Amie Doherty
Run time: 113 minutes
The High Note is available digitally on August 17 and on Blu-Ray and DVD August 31.