The High Note

The High Note is a music-based comedy that I enjoyed the heck out of. The movie doesn't break any new ground in the kind of story it tells; this is your basic tale about a young person trying to “make it” in the music industry with the help of an already established star. Nevertheless, winning performances from the ensemble cast and some snappy dialogue bring that idea to life one more time. And the songs are pretty great, which is always important.

Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, the personal assistant to singing legend Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). She's supposed to do everything from manage her boss's schedule to run errands. Maggie has dreams of being a music producer, and has even secretly done her own mix of Grace's upcoming live album. That clandestine project gets a mixed reaction: Grace genuinely likes Maggie's effort, yet doesn't want her abandoning her post.

To prove herself, Maggie decides to produce some tunes for David Cliff (Waves' Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a singer/songwriter she meets at a cafe. If you guessed they form a romantic bond...well, of course they do. Balancing a professional and personal relationship proves tricky.

Running concurrent to this is a second plot thread involving Grace's career. She wants to record an album of new music, but her record label and her manager, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube), see more money in peddling her beloved hits. They're pressuring her to accept a Vegas residency, where she would get paid handsomely for performing the classics night after night. She has to decide whether to take the easy payday or risk the potential of publicly failing if a new album tanks.

The way The High Note has the arcs of Maggie and Grace intersect comprises a lot of the fun. Maggie could help Grace come up with music that's hip and relevant. A touch of ego prevents the singer from putting too much faith in a protege. And Maggie, while full of fresh ideas, is far too inexperienced to fully handle a mega-star of Grace's magnitude that way. These are a few of the avenues the film goes down. These two women need each other, they just need to figure out how and to what degree.

Everyone in this movie is fantastic, starting with Tracee Ellis Ross, who smartly avoids the temptation to turn Grace into a full-on diva. The trap with a character like this is to overplay her, to make her an exaggeration of a superstar. Ross lets Grace have her tantrums or moments of pulling rank – especially in a powerful scene where she puts Maggie in her place in a record company bathroom. She does not, however, rob her of humanity. We can see that Grace genuinely cares about those in her inner circle. She's also got a lot of vulnerability, recognizing that the peak of her career is over, even if her creative drive isn't close to being tapped. This is a marvelous turn from Ross.

Dakota Johnson, meanwhile, is utterly charming as Maggie, hitting the right balance of being ambitious and naive. The actress makes her frustration with her boss humorous. She additionally works up a sweet chemistry with Harrison, who once more proves himself a vibrant, versatile performer. As Grace's manager, Ice Cube steals every scene he's in. Jack is a hilariously no-nonsense show biz veteran, somebody who suffers no fools. The way Cube delivers a put-down always results in a laugh.

The one area where The High Note stumbles a bit is in its third act. Bill Pullman arrives for a thankless role – the father Maggie turns to for advice at a key moment. That feels a little stereotypical, even if Pullman is typically good. There's also a revelation about two of the characters that's so forced it might make you roll your eyes in disbelief. I get what the movie is going for in revealing this information; something similar could have been accomplished in a more organic way, though.

Despite those minor flaws, The High Note is a pleasure to watch. Jokes about the music industry land, Ross gets to sing a couple of really catchy songs, and we become invested in what happens to Maggie and Grace. I like that it's a movie about nice people. Rather than telling a bitter show-biz story, director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and writer Flora Greeson focus on talented people in different stages of their careers who want to share their gifts with the world.

What a welcome dose of optimism that is.

out of four

The High Note is rated PG-13 for some strong language, and suggestive references. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.