The High Note director Nisha Ganatra follows her comedy Late Night with another movie about the relationship between a young, ambitious woman and an older, established one, from a screenplay written by former music-industry assistant Flora Greeson. Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie, a Personal Assistant to the imperious pop superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross); the two actresses anchor this tentative, overly safe but heart-warming film with charismatic performances and engaging chemistry.
Maggie has big dreams of becoming a music producer and spends her nights remixing tracks until she falls asleep on her keyboard, while her days are filled with running errands, scheduling Grace’s days and fielding her every whim – as the generous use of montages tells us. Meanwhile, as the singer-songwriter struggles against an industry trying to push her out, she worries that her best years might be behind her and wonders whether to take a lucrative residency in Las Vegas, an offer which her manager (Ice Cube, in his worst role yet) encourages her to accept.
The latter storyline is the set-up to a much braver film that would engage in thorny topics like the racism and ageism faced by women like Grace in the public eye, or the class divide between Maggie and Grace, or the sexism women in the general music industry are forced to endure. At best, these issues are touched upon in a throwaway comment, if not ignored altogether.
The High Note instead favours a nostalgic, fairy tale version of Los Angeles where dreams really do come true, if only you work hard and believe in yourself! Simultaneously however, an awareness of these issues cannot help but creep in, ultimately dampening the film’s escapist quality. Said escapism does thrive in the film’s romantic subplot, in which amateur musician David (up-and-comer Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is persuaded to hire Maggie as his producer after a supermarket meet-cute.
The cast is filled out with colourful supporting roles, including June Diane Raphael as Grace’s house manager (forever a comedic delight) and Bill Pullman as Maggie’s cosy father. They join Harrison Jr. in elevating what is an otherwise bland, two-dimensional protagonist – despite Johnson’s relaxed, girl-next-door charm – and whose story it proves hard to care about.
While The High Note is neither ambitious nor original, it is still a pleasant watch with comfortingly familiar beats and a wonderful soundtrack that includes Sam Cooke, Joni Mitchell, Corinne Bailey Rae, the Staple Sisters, and even Tracee Ellis Ross in her singing debut. The High Note is what you’ll want to stick on on a warm summer night.
The High Note is out on demand.