In Review

The High Note

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
Directed by Nisha Ganatra
Written by Flora Greeson
Starring Dakota Johnson, June Diane Raphael, Bill Pullman, Tracee Ellis Ross
PG-13 | 1h 53min | Drama, Music, Romance | 2020 (USA)
Review by Jeanne Powell

Streaming at the end of May 2020 is a Focus Features film release directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Flora Greeson. The High Note takes us to the glamorous side of the Los Angeles music scene, with lots of nostalgia for the classic moments in rock & roll.

Tracee Ellis Ross plays Grace Davis, who is at the top of her career as a pop music diva and uncertain where to go next. Her longtime manager is Jack Robinson, played as obnoxious by Ice Cube. He is not subtle in pressing his desire to have Grace take a lucrative residency in Las Vegas, like Celine Dion. Grace’s secret dream is to make another album, but she fears she doesn’t have it in her.

Dakota Johnson is Maggie Sherwoode, Grace’s personal assistant. Similar to Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada, Maggie is always in demand and seems to be taken for granted. The difference between the Andy and Maggie characters is that Maggie genuinely loves her job and deeply admires her difficult and demanding boss. As played by Johnson, Maggie exhibits optimism and gratitude, and is more than up to the challenge of negotiating Los Angeles and Burbank freeways in her rundown car with its morning-after paint job, as she takes care of endless errands on behalf of Grace.

Zoe Chao is Maggie’s roommate (Katie Davis), a medical resident at a local hospital. She is not shy about expressing her opinions on Maggie’s life decisions, but they balance each other beautifully. When they’re finally on the same page, Katie is solidly in her corner.

Good performance by Bill Pullman as Maggie’s dad, who has a music show on radio. His modest home far from L.A. is in stark contrast to the mansion where Grace Davis lives. Maggie was raised by her widower dad, surrounded by music. When things fall apart, this is where she goes for comfort and reassurance.

The romance between Maggie and David Cliff, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is fueled by their mutual love of music.  Predictably the characters fall for each other, but we get to experience the music while their easy-going relationship develops, comparable to Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.

Dakota Johnson in 'The High Note'
Photo credit: Focus Features

Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis is lovely onstage as a music icon and sympathetic offstage as an aging diva at a career crossroads. She polished her acting credentials for years in two popular television series, Girlfriends and Black-ish.

Where fact and fiction come together is when we find out that Ross has long wanted to try her hand at singing. She is the daughter of Diana Ross, and so has experienced considerable anxiety about the right time and circumstances for recording a first album in the future. That anxiety existed in putting together the music for The High Note as well.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Tracee said:

“Was I going to be compared to my mom? ‘Cause I can’t be her,” she explains. “I’m not supposed to be her! At 47 years old, the magnitude of my mom’s career — her gifts, her talents, who she is — still was blinding me to allowing myself to try something.”

This is a feel-good film, wonderfully free of the drug and alcohol drama woven into so many music movies.

Very nice moments where Grace and Maggie are riding in Grace’s Bugatti, singing. And whenever Maggie is driving alone, in her own beat-up car, she sings along to Grace’s recordings.

This is a feel-good film, wonderfully free of the drug and alcohol drama woven into so many music movies.

Jeanne Powell
Jeanne is a published poet and essayist. She holds degrees from Wayne State University and the University of San Francisco. Jeanne has taught in the CS, UB and OLLI programs at universities in the City. Her books in print include MY OWN SILENCE and WORD DANCING from Taurean Horn Press.