The pin officially drops on the soundtrack of summer with The High Note! The film might be as close to the music scene we get this summer outside the doors of The Eddy. This fun and breezy flick from Vancouver-native and Late Night director Nisha Ganatra is also a welcome return for Hollywood. As one of the first films to debut at home without a festival premiere or theatrical marketing blitz, The High Note is a fresh offering for audiences desperate to escape COVID-19 claustrophobia. The film scripted by Flora Greeson plays well enough at home to give audiences theatrical quality entertainment, especially if one has the speakers to let the soundtrack soar, without leaving the comfort zone of the living room. It’s just the ticket for anyone looking to kick back with warm mellow vibes.
Featuring strong performances from Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., The High Note is smart, light, and fun entertainment. Much like Ganatra’s Late Night, The High Note retools the Devil Wears Prada boss-from-hell-gives-girl-a-boost formula for fun-in-the-sun escapism. Johnson steps into the Anne Hathaway/Mindy Kaling role as Maggie, an aspiring music producer getting by as an assistant to an aging diva, Grace Davis (Ellis Ross). The gig might inspire plucky up-and-comers to draw blood with fierce competitiveness, but Maggie knows she’s treading water in a stepping stone role that isn’t leading anywhere. She has all the goods to make it in the biz, though, as The High Note begins with Maggie cutting killer tracks during after-hours mixing sessions in the studio. Maggie also has a producer’s intuition as she recognizes Grace’s weariness about settling into a career riding the waves of her greatest hits.
Dreams vs. Reality
Grace, on the other hand, is at a turning point. In her mid-forties, she’s still young and fresh enough to put on a killer show. This inspires her manager (Ice Cube) to entice her to take a Vegas deal, making bank by playing the same set-list for buffet-grubbing tourists night after night. She’s a diva, as noted by the killer clothes and bubbly at the ready, but an artist at heart. Single aside from the odd date with Michael B. Jordan, all Grace has to leave the world is her music.
The High Note injects an interracial dynamic into workplace comedy conventions as Maggie and Grace aspire to similar dreams with different realities. As an aging Black woman succeeding in an industry where white men remain the gatekeepers—note the boardroom meeting that eerily resembles the writers’ room in Late Night—Grace knows that the odds are against her. In a fiery exchange, she reminds Maggie that only one woman over forty has ever had a number one hit. (Tina Tuner with “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”) Sometimes one’s livelihood and one’s artistic integrity aren’t so easily reconciled.
Ross Reigns Supreme
But in casting Ross, an accomplished actress in her own right but also the daughter of Motown diva Diana Ross, The High Note finds something greater in this somewhat familiar premise. There’s something soulful and lived-in to Ross’s performance. One can’t help but note the novel resemblance between Grace Davis and Diana Ross, even if one doesn’t know the art-imitating-life family lineage. Ellis’s committed turn creates a character who fully knows the stakes and risks of showbiz. She imbues Grace with the costs of playing the rigged game, as there’s an understated sadness to the character as her overly demanding diva antics ultimately reveal her loneliness. Everyone around Grace is paid to be there.
However, Grace remains grounded and fun. She’s alone not because she’s awful, but because she’s driven. (A point about workplace sexism also driven home by The Devil Wears Prada and Late Night.) Let Ross take the stage, though, and Grace truly comes to life as a born performer. Ross belts out some showy vocals that should do her momma proud.
Soundtrack and Soul
Johnson captivates with her earnest turn. Maggie combines Johnson’s ingénue from Suspiria with the sexpot of A Bigger Splash as she juggles the biz on one hand and discovers herself in another. The High Note branches out from Grace’s diva dynasty when Maggie meets David (Harrison). David, a super-talented singer, boasts a ludicrously pimped-out pad despite struggling in the biz. Somewhat predictably, Maggie sees David as both a love interest and a work prospect. She seduces him twofold, nurturing him as an artist and finding an outlet for her creativity when her work with Grace is mostly relegated to purging closets of award show dresses that no longer spark joy. Harrison adds to his string of notable breakthrough turns after Waves and Luce. His unexpectedly powerful vocals on several of the film’s original tunes reveal new depth. Johnson, meanwhile, enjoys charming rapport with both co-stars.
Ganatra proves an assured hand with actors. Her easygoing approach lets the performances drive the heart and humour of The High Note.The memorable soundtrack accentuates the feels. The film’s empowering anthem “Love Myself,” performed confidently by Ross, should be an early favourite in the Best Original Song race. The High Note has showbiz is its blood. It’s a welcome antidote for trash TV singing competitions with promises of instant fame. Even when some moments feel familiar or one late-act plot twist rings false, the film’s heart captures the rush of the entertainment industry and the high of the celebrity. Particularly in Ross’s world-weary showmanship, Johnson’s effervescent idealism, and Harrison’s vocals that reveal a star coming into being, The High Note taps into the strains and allures of the spotlight.
The High Note premieres on home video on May 29.
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