Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 28th, 2020
The High Note (Nisha Ganatra, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Dakota Johnson has come a long way from the ignominy of the 50 Shades of Grey series, in which she did her best to rise above the risible source material. She certainly fared better than her poor costar Jamie Dornan (so otherwise fine in the BBC series The Fall), whose vitality seemed sapped by the flaccid writing. Something about the way she played the part gave her character an inward ironic wink; she was in on the joke of how ridiculous it all was, but hey, it’s a bestseller and that’s how you establish yourself.
Since then, however, and concurrent to the second and third films in that dispiriting saga, Johnson has distinguished herself doing excellent work in intriguing (if sometimes flawed) movies such as A Bigger Splash, the Suspiria remake and The Peanut Butter Falcon, to name just some. Now here she comes in The High Note, paired with the equally excellent Tracee Ellis Ross (Black-ish) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce). Though hardly a great masterpiece, it’s an entertaining story about the challenges faced by women (both young and older) and people of color in the music industry, a genuinely good time and a great showcase for its three leads, with director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) keeping the pace snappy and the tone light.
Johnson plays Maggie, personal assistant to Ross’ Grace Davis, a pop diva whose last original album came out well over a decade ago. Though her concerts sell out, many see her as well past her prime, including her longtime manager, Jack (Ice Cube, Fist Fight), who just wants her to settle for a residency in Las Vegas where she can continue to belt out her hits and cash in. Maggie, however, who has idolized Davis since childhood and has dreams of being a music producer, has other ideas. Working at a studio owned by a friend, she has secretly remixed Davis’ upcoming live-concert album, and hopes to be able to somehow present it to her employer, bypassing Jack, and start a new phase of her professional life. Easier said than done.
Meanwhile, though she has little time for a social life, Maggie meets David (Harrison) while grocery shopping, the young man starting up a flirtation that she quickly turns to business when she realizes that his own aspirations as a musician could use a boost. She offers her services as producer, lying about her experience. Soon, their flirtation grows more serious, even as their collaboration on his upcoming album grows intense. Will Maggie be able to reach those career high notes she so longs to hit? And will she have to sacrifice this newfound romantic possibility to do that? These questions, plus another mystery (sadly, a bit too coincidental, and easily guessed), form the spine of the film. Though the final act comes off as too conveniently managed to remain believable, it’s still fun to watch. Plus, Bill Pullman (The Ballad of Lefty Brown) shows up, and he’s always a welcome bonus.
Ross – the daughter of singer Diana Ross – does her own singing, and beyond that display of lovely talent, delivers a finely nuanced performance as a star who may have come up the hard way but now expects things to go how she wants them to go. Harrison (who also sings, and well) is deeply charming, both cocky and vulnerable. And then there’s Johnson, who, though herself the child of celebrities (Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), is perfectly cast in the role of wannabe, filled with simultaneous uncertainty and confidence. Together, this trio of actors makes even the most predictable parts of the story go down easy. It’s an always pleasant tune.