[Review] ‘THE HIGH NOTE’ hums a marvelous melody

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

THE HIGH NOTE

Rated PG-13. 112 minutes

Directed by: Nisha Ganatra

Starring: Dakota JohnsonTracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, June Diane RaphaelBill Pullman 

Director Nisha Ganatra’s THE HIGH NOTE is an extremely savvy picture. Though it spins a familiar song, its female-forward, women-supporting-women narrative about a music industry pro and an optimistic hopeful plays like music to our ears. Not only is this a finely tuned, gorgeously lensed love letter to the SoCal sound, it’s an inspired next generation THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (minus the lousy boyfriend and ungrateful pals) with sharp sentiments and deep pockets of nuance. Funny, whip-smart, absolutely winning and winsome, this one hits all the right notes.

Soft-spoken Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is superstar Grace Davis’ (Tracee Ellis Ross) long-suffering personal assistant. Day or night, she’s available for whatever her boss’ heart desires – from fetching the organic green juice that will never cross the demanding diva’s lips, to Marie Kondo-ing the clotheshorse’s closet on a late night whim. However, menial tasks aren’t what Maggie’s heart desires. She dreams of springboarding from her assistant gig into a music producer role. She’s got the ear, the knowledge, and the work ethic to help launch a star on the rise, like she does on the side with cute singer/ songwriter/ love interest David (Kelvin Harrison Jr., oozing charisma and charm), or even help one rise again, like Grace, whose iconic career has plateaued.

Though Grace remains a world-renowned top act, her inspirational creative fire has fizzled. The last time she took a chance on new original material, she got soul-crushing critiques and dismal album sales, so she’s resigned to playing her time-honored, chart-topping hits in city after city for the rest of her life. Her longtime manager Jack (Ice Cube) and guesthouse-dwelling mooch Gayle (June Diane Raphael) prefer it this way as well. But not Maggie. She believes Grace will rediscover her passion for music, finding renewed vigor and vitality, if she would only believe in herself once again. And with Maggie’s encouragement and astute producorial skills, Grace will get a career resurgence along with the iconic recognition she fully deserves.

(L-R) Dakota Johnson, Ice Cube, and Tracee Ellis Ross in THE HIGH NOTE. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Ganatra and screenwriter Flora Greeson don’t just give their characters and situations a base beat on which to lay their lyrical aptitude – they give these voices resounding layers. The feature isn’t driven by superficial observations about the music industry past and present, although it goes there at times with Grace’s crazier eccentricities and a sequence with slick, dimwitted music producer Richie Williams (Diplo). Rather, where this narrative mines gold is its genuine, heartfelt commentary on what it is to be a woman over a certain age – a woman of color at that! – in the pop genre. It also explores pop stardom when the fans turn fickle, and what it is to truly be creatively vulnerable. Partial credit for that goes to Ross’ tour-de-force performance, delivering career-best work without an inch of artifice. When Grace counters Maggie’s wide-eyed optimism in their bathroom heart-to-heart, it’s a conversation laid bare – one you’d imagine Ross gleaned from observing her own world-famous mother’s similar trials and tribulations. While Maggie’s motivations are pulled in a few different directions, the gravitas behind Grace’s choice to do a residency – resign herself to cushy comfortability – or take a risk doing something new provides the motor for Grace’s internal and external conflicts. Plus, it’s subversive and refreshing that David’s arc is motivated by Maggie’s, not the other way around.

Cinematographer Jason McCormick’s effused light bathes the picture in a perfect golden hour glow, capturing the “forever spring” vibe of Los Angeles days where sunshine radiates in a rainbow prism. This casual, cool aesthetic augments Theresa Guleserian’s production design, Erika Toth’s art direction and Melissa M. Levander’s set decoration. Their combined efforts impart a lived-in feel to these characters’ lives, a loving homage to the town’s eclectic music scene – from Laurel Canyon to the historic walls of Capitol Records. Wendy Greene Bricmont’s crisp edits, particularly in the montages (like Grace’s “Stop For A Minute” rehearsal and live stage show), give the feature a crackling electricity. Costume designer Jenny Eagan also deserves major props for not constantly dressing Maggie in vintage rock n’ roll tee shirts to show she’s enthusiastic. Her sense of style, best shown when she nabs Grace’s donated YSL coat and restyles it, reflects the remix she’d like to do on Grace’s life. Eagan’s selections for Grace are, of course, gob-smackingly glamourous (the rose gold nightgown will be highly-coveted) and aspirational.

With a catchy AF soundtrack to boot (a must-own on vinyl), Ganatra and company have crafted a toe-tapping, blissful film that will leave you singing its praises.

Grade: B

THE HIGH NOTE is available on PVOD ($19.99 rental fee) starting on May 29.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.