Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) is the personal assistant of legendary R&B singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). This means she takes care of all the everyday concerns of the star. She has been in the role for three years and would like to move up and into the entertainment business proper. Maggie took the job in the first place because she has always been a dedicated music fan and sees herself becoming a music producer. To this end, she has been remixing some of Grace’s songs without the star’s knowledge.
Grace is still touring and filling stadiums, but she hasn’t released a new album in many years. She wants to get out new songs for her fans. Her manager, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) sees her career trajectory quite differently. He believes the time is right for a long-term Las Vegas residency and that any new albums should be exclusively old hits, sung live.
Grace’s struggle is to take the next step in her career. For a star who has always been certain of her creative journey, she finds herself unsure of what her next move should be. At the same time, Maggie feels that she is stagnating in her personal assistant role. Although they discuss many minute daily matters, Grace and Maggie aren’t friends, they’re an employer and employee and each is unaware of the difficulties the other is facing.
In an attempt to do more hands-on producing, Maggie meets an emerging singer-songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and they begin a creative partnership. The pair have an attraction to each other, but Maggie wants the relationship to remain about business.
THE HIGH NOTE is directed by Nisha Ganatra who also directed the comedy-drama LATE NIGHT (2019) with Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling. That film also had a young versus old storyline. Here, Grace represents established ideas versus Maggie’s more innovative approach. The choice to make Maggie someone who can help Grace rather than being her competition avoids the story going into the territory of ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) or A STAR IS BORN (1937) (1954) (1976) (2018). The movie does hark back to some classic Hollywood story ideas; however, it glosses over these with sufficient contemporary filmmaking sparkle.
Grace Davis is a money-making machine if she just keeps everything about her act exactly the same. If she delivers what is expected, she, and a bunch of other people at her record label, will keep paying their bills. Maggie, who has very little to lose, is the only person on Grace’s side about creating something new and different. The problem is that Grace doesn’t always agree with herself that this is the best way to go.
Flora Greeson is a first-time screenwriter and part of Maggie’s story is based on Greeson’s own experience being an assistant for an executive in a Los Angeles talent agency. A huge music fan herself, she also watched a number of documentaries on stars like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Joni Mitchell and Carole King to build the character of Grace Davis.
Casting Tracee Ellis Ross would seem like a no-brainer because she is the daughter of a real-life legendary singer, Diana Ross. The actor has insisted that she isn’t portraying a version of her mother, but she has also said the world that Grace inhabits is like home to her. Make of that what you will. Understandably, Ross, who had never sung professionally, was nervous about recording the songs for the film and then playing them for her mother. Diana Ross gave the final result the thumbs up, much to her daughter’s relief.
Tracee Ellis Ross is best known for televisions GIRLFRIENDS (2000-08) and BLACK-ISH (2014-2020) and has never had the lead role in a feature film. The talented actor grabs this opportunity with both hands and her nothing-like-Diana-Ross character Grace is ego-driven, precise, demanding and sometimes mean. And she is also insecure, vague, generous and sometimes warm. The film offers us a well-rounded portrayal of a star. There is often a difficulty in overcoming one’s disbelief when an actor plays a popular musician; looking like they are genuinely playing, singing and performing live can be a real challenge. Tracee Ellis Ross has all of this nailed.
Dakota Johnson’s recent profile has been connected to the FIFTY SHADES franchise. Here she is required to be put-upon, clever and slightly overly-ambitious. The rom-com chemistry between her and Kelvin Harrison Jr. is good. Her lightly comedic take on the role of Maggie also works well. The other supporting players, Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman and Eddie Izzard keep the scenes humming along.
Ultimately, THE HIGH NOTE is some hooky pop songs and some good actors performing likeable characters in a feel-good film. Running time 113 minutes. Rating (6.5/10)