The High Note

A rambling, amiable comedy romance that hits the right light notes while making a point about women in the music industry


M, 113 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

A rambling, amiable, upbeat story set in a sunny, glitzy Los Angeles, The High Note is, as you might expect, about the music business. No ‘high note challenge’ here though. It’s about how to find a way into the business, how to stay there, and knowing when to retire.

For celebrated rhythm-and-blues superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), it’s crunch time. She has to decide whether to stop touring, whether to launch a new suite of songs or stick to the tried and true and take up a residency at Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas.

She has a stash of Grammys – a total of 11, she is happy to remind people – but she hasn’t released a new album in a decade. Her agent Jack (Ice Cube) is agitating for her to accept the offer from Caesar’s. It would make life easy for both of them, but Grace doesn’t want to finish up performing in front of people who need reminding ‘she’s still alive’.

Grace’s does have some of the best lines in this gentle comedy romance that is kind to everyone. And that’s saying something these days.

As we would expect from her work in TV, Tracee Ellis Ross is a commanding presence as the R&B diva. Her talent and elegance allude to the many great women singers who have topped the charts over the years. The Arethas, Whitneys, the Chers and Adeles. And Tracee is in real life the daughter of the fabulous Diana Ross.

Maggie wears her fandom on her fringed  suede jacket sleeve

For a young music industry hopeful like Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson, who happens to be Melanie Griffith’s daughter), Grace’s personal assistant, it’s about how to find her way in. She has talent, informed opinions on the greats, and wants to build a career as a music producer. Brought up on 70s vinyl by her DJ dad (Bill Pullman), she wears her fandom on her fringed suede jacket sleeve.

But when Maggie drives to the airport to pick up her boss, she is a little late and gets a dressing down, that seems to be par for the course.

The rust bucket Maggie drives and her taste in clothes, are they a reflection of personal style or a reflection of her pay scale? When Grace registers the state of Maggie’s car, she tells her she should ask her boss for a raise. A shared joke, or is it?

Maggie has been three years in the job, but High Note doesn’t seek to make a point of this, or remind us of anything that might look like inter-generational inequity.

Johnson’s doe-eyed looks made me feel uncomfortable when I watched her in Fifty Shades of Grey, too. Her look here is retro 70s, but the timidity is not quite plausible in a modern-day top-flight PA.

Not everyone wants to get into the music business. Talented singer-songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr), isn’t sure he doesn’t just want to sing in public when he feels like it.

As a love interest and with music Maggie would love to produce, David takes the narrative in a new direction, but the couple who join hands at the conclusion are not who you might expect. Yet another plot twist, the final big reveal is pretty implausible.

The High Note, is based on a screenplay by first-time feature screenwriter, Flora Greeson. It needed a tough edit to eliminate rambling threads and lift the dialogue.

It has been directed by Nisha Ganatra, who directed Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling in Late Night, released last year. Written by Kaling, that screenplay also pitted a successful older career woman with a sharp tongue, against her Gen Y assistant who wants what she’s got.

Late Night is by far the better film, though High Note does have its comic moments and its music is a bonus too.

The High Note is helmed by female key creatives, led by two good female actors and makes some useful points about women in the music industry too. However, it keeps things light and breezy and is easy to go along with.

Some of its best dialogue occurs when a minor character, Katie (Zoe Chao), enters the frame. As Maggie’s best friend, a doctor, she delivers a reality check, and cuts through the dull bits in the brittle, celebrity culture of the world that her friend has opted for.

First published in the Canberra Times on 26 September and broadcast on ArtSound FM

Featured image: Ice Cube, Dakota Johnson and Zoe Chao in The High Note. Courtesy Focus Features