One of my favorite things about music centered films are that they show the behind the scenes aspect of the music industry. Two of the seven basic plots (Rags to Riches) and (Rebirth) mix in the Focus Features released The High Note. Directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by first screenwriter Flora Gresson, The High Note tells the story of Maggie (Dakota Johnson), an aspiring producer currently serving as the personal assistant to world-renowned soul singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross).
Grace hasn’t released an album with new material in over a decade but stays in the spotlight touring as a novelty act performing her old songs. Grace’s overbearing but knowledgeable manager Jack (Ice Cube), is looking to secure Grace as a Vegas headlining slot, similar to Celine Dion. Jack also brings in a commercial A-LIST producer to remix Grace’s old hits into a modernized sound to appeal to the streaming age. Maggie, who has a comprehensive music knowledge, thinks Grace should release new music or share with her fans the actual raw demo versions of her hits.
Fate intervenes one day when during a routine grocery shopping trip for Grace, Maggie runs into aspiring singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Impressed with his vocal ability, Maggie decides to work with him, while trying to prove to both Jack and Grace that she has what it takes to succeed in the music industry as a producer. Flora Green’s script for The High Note was initially on 2018’s Black List, the annual survey of the “most-liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. It’s easy to see why the film made the Blacklist, as it’s a simple tale that anyone with a dream of entering the music industry can understand. Dakota Johnson brings a friendly everywoman approach to the lead role of Maggie.
Fresh from her performance in last year’s wrestling drama The Peanut Butter Falcon, Johnson continues to impress me with her acting choices. Almost to the point where Anastasia’s role in the adaptation of the Fifty Shades trilogy is no longer her claim to fame. Honing in on the character trope of an overly ambitious career woman who bumps heads with veterans in her chosen field, suits Johnson nicely. The way her character interacts with Ellis Ross and Ice Cube were some of the film’s best moments.
Known primarily for her television work, Tracee Ellis Ross gets a chance to shine on the big screen. Popular opinion may think that in hindsight, Tracee Ellis Ross is merely portraying a composite character of her famous mother, the legendary Diana Ross. However, outside of the plot points of the gap between new music (Diana Ross hasn’t released new music since 1999’s Every Day is a New Day) and legendary acts touring off the old hits, I found everything else to be a coincidence.
Ross is good as Grace Davis, an aging singer who realizes that sometimes you have to appeal to the masses, despite knowing that’s not the route you want to go. There are also moments in the film where Ross has a chance to sing, and she does a commendable job. I also liked the tough love aspect that Ross gives Johnson’s Maggie, letting her know just how cutthroat the music industry truly is. I would have to say, though, I most enjoyed Kelvin Harrison Jr’s portrayal of David. One of the best young actors working in Hollywood right now, Harrison’s portrayal of a starving artist is genuine and similar to Ross; he possesses a great singing voice. Hopefully, producers take note and offer him a biopic role soon.
The High Life isn’t without issues, though. I found the Ice Cube character to be a bit underwritten, and it seems that he only was cast for his natural “mean boss” nature. While the mean boss aspect is there to help Maggie achieve a goal, it’s nothing we haven’t seen from Cube before. There’s also a reveal of a concoction between Grace and David that audiences will see coming a mile away. Finally, the film’s resolution wrapped up a little too quickly, almost as if about twenty minutes remain on the cutting room floor.
Nevertheless, I do recommend The High Life for fans of music-based films and those who like underdog stories.
Final Grade B-