Every so often my lizard brain does not want to be irritated by white-savior narratives, or point out the insane price tag associated with a Nancy Meyers kitchen, or wonder why an Outkast song is being used in a children’s movie like Scoob!. Every so often my lizard brain wants to bask in the luxury of 1% wealth, be soothed by two very attractive people falling for each other, and coo over sequined gowns and immaculately designed bathrooms and the plush interior of a private jet. I apologize for admitting this classist weakness, but it’s the truth! Sometimes I just want to be entertained! I AM THAT CROWD RUSSELL CROWE IS YELLING AT IN GLADIATOR, OKAY?
And in that context, The High Note is just the thing! Directed by Nisha Ganatra (who previously directed Mindy Kaling’s Late Night) and penned by Flora Greeson in her screenwriting debut, The High Note feels old-fashioned in its methodologies, with a couple of soapy twists, and there’s a slick glossiness here thanks to the ridiculous real estate and pricey cars. But the script is thankfully more than just flashy wealth indicators, although there are a lot of them. There are also the age-old questions here of “Who are you? Who do you want to be?” and the movie gives them space to breathe, to be considered from all angles. There is a familiarity to some of this—we’re talking about the music industry here, so the possibility of selling out lurks throughout The High Note—but the movie makes enough updates to ground its characters so they feel particularly of this time and of this place.
The High Note introduces us first to megastar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, having a great time), an established and adored pop star who is still touring regularly, who commands respect within the industry, but who hasn’t had a new hit in years. Her fans are still committed, still singing along to her biggest hit (“This song is about a bad girl,” Ross says with wonderful mischief before launching into the song), still buying her CD releases, but it’s mostly the same old stuff. Grace’s longtime manager, Jack (Ice Cube, bringing some of his judgmental 21 Jump Street energy), has been by her side for decades, and wants her to take a Las Vegas residency and complete work on a greatest-hits album through their longtime distributor, Capitol Records. Giving the fans what they want has kept the money flowing, Jack figures, and why deviate from that?
For her part, Grace Davis is clearly enjoying living the good life and making clear that she’s the boss. Ross plays Grace like a woman in control used to being in control, who wears her authority with as much ease as her designer wardrobe, and whose flighty indecision in her day-to-day life is a recognizable quality of how we’re used to seeing the wealthy onscreen. They’re not self-absorbed, they’re just quirky! And the person who bears the brunt of that spontaneity is her assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson, who you might recognize from murdering Ellen DeGeneres), who brings Grace a green juice, then gets her McDonald’s instead, then has to eat it when Grace gets bored of one bite; who helps Grace clean out her whole house the same night that Grace knows Maggie is going on a date; who has to deal with drunk Grace when she demands Maggie drive her to a popular taco truck, then acts like the truck is a drive-through window. It’s all typical “overbearing rich boss” stuff, but Maggie truly cares for Grace: She’s been a fan since her childhood, and is convinced that Grace’s music can still be relevant and modern.
So, in secret, Maggie begins to work on remixing some of Grace’s songs. Also in secret, she begins to produce the music of an up-and-coming singer-songwriter she finds performing outside of a grocery store, David (Kelvin Harrison Jr., of Waves). Working both jobs at the same time, butting heads with Jack (“You’re not a producer. You’re not an artist. You’re not a manger,” he tells her during one of their arguments), and sparring with Grace, who knows that Maggie isn’t giving her all to the assistant job anymore, Maggie struggles to decide what she wants to do. And running in parallel with Maggie’s frustration is Grace’s realization that her star might be slipping—that the Ariana Grandes and Cardi Bs of the world are nipping at her heels. Could Maggie and Grace work together to find a solution, or are Jack and all the men in the boardroom at Capitol Records, the ones who don’t take Maggie seriously and who want Grace to ease into her retirement, right?
The High Note is trying to tackle a few different issues—the limited roles for women of a certain age in the music industry, particularly black women; the uphill battle for female producers to break into the field; the complacency that comes with success; what we expect from our favorite artists, and whether we really want to be challenged by something new or comforted by something familiar—and the script mostly pulls that all off, to varying degrees of success. Most impactful is what The High Note has to say about the effort required for a woman like Grace Davis to achieve and maintain the success she has, even though it means stifling her own creativity. A scene at Capitol Records where Grace has to bite her tongue in front of a group of men half her age assessing her career, and after which she tears into Maggie for her certainty that Grace should just walk away from her record deal and do whatever she wants, speaks simultaneously to her knowledge that her position is precarious, and to her refusal to be a stepping stone for Maggie—a younger white woman—on her own career path. That moment is one of a few in the film that speak directly to Maggie’s character as a white savior, and it shows a self-awareness to the script that is matched by the winningness of Ross’s performance.
Her big laugh fills a room; her verve is abundant; she has good chemistry with Ice Cube as Jack; she brings enough attitude to pull off the posing and posturing required for a character like Grace Davis. And Ross and Johnson work well together as women who are fond of each other but who are also, frankly, using each other. Maggie tries to say that she and Grace are actually friends, but that’s not entirely true. There’s affection between them, but the movie consciously works to make sure they’re not exactly BFFs just because they both happen to be women; this is similar to Ganatra’s Late Night, in how Emma Thompson’s and Mindy Kaling’s characters viewed each other. Women can be allies and partners without a sentimental filter, and The High Note is a better film for understanding that.
There’s some soapiness here for which you’ll need to suspend disbelief, and there’s an argument to be made that the movie could have incorporated Harrison’s and Bill Pullman’s characters more fully into the main narrative. But The High Note, predictable as it might be, entertains because of Ross’s dynamo energy, a script that subverts what you might expect from a character like Maggie, and a plethora of details that really speak to the insularity of L.A.’s 1%, from a cameo by Diplo, playing up his fuckboi vs. dirtbag appeal, to sarcastic one-liners about SpaceX. The world feels particularly nightmarish right now. The High Note might be the break you need from it.
The High Note is available for a 48-hour rental period through Prime Video, Google Play, Apple TV, and various other cable and online on-demand providers, for $19.99.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features, Focus Features, Focus Features