Most movies about the music industry are so simplistic about everything from artistic purity to studio sessions to record contracts that The High Note earns some goodwill just by following a wannabe producer, instead of an earnest singer-songwriter. Rather than toting the obligatory acoustic guitar, Maggie (Dakota Johnson) carries actual opinions about how records should sound. She also has what the movie seems to consider encyclopedic command of obscure music trivia. Why, she even knows right away that “The Weight” is by The Band!
Maggie’s fandom seems confined to recognizable music of the ’60s and ’70s, though she makes an exception for her love of Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a superstar from the ’90s who only sounds like a classic soul-pop artist from the ’70s. Grace also happens to be her boss. Maggie has toiled for years as a personal assistant, and is still working up the courage to ask for what she really wants: to produce a Grace Davis album. She thinks the singer, who’s fielding an offer for a Las Vegas residency, should cut a record of new material, but she’d settle for handling her upcoming live compilation. Grace’s on-and-off manager, Jack (Ice Cube), is more interested in the Vegas deal, and senses an opportunistic streak in Maggie, or maybe just feels threatened by anyone advising Grace against taking the easiest, biggest possible paydays. Still, he’s not wrong to remind Maggie that Grace isn’t really her friend, close as they seem at times. They have the kind of intense yet uncomfortable intimacy achieved when one person is always there for the other, mainly because they’re paid to be.
The uncertain relationship between a scrappy newcomer to the entertainment industry and an extremely famous, somewhat testy older woman at a career crossroads seems like a developing pet interest of director Nisha Ganatra. She explored it last year in the Mindy Kaling comedy Late Night, which similarly applied a romantic-dramedy vibe to showbiz. (Both movies probably owe their career-as-rom-com approach to The Devil Wears Prada.) Feeling stonewalled by Grace even after receiving praise for her unsolicited production work, Maggie perks up at the sound of David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), performing in a grocery store parking lot moments after they’ve shared a flirtatious conversation inside. She pitches herself to him—in a strictly professional capacity as his producer, of course, while neglecting to tell him just how inexperienced she is.
This is supposed to be a subplot, secondary to the Maggie/Grace dynamic, but Harrison is so charismatic that his scenes with Johnson pop out immediately; maybe this should have been a proper rom-com after all. Johnson isn’t perfectly cast as a wide-eyed Prada-style striver; her best roles (or, in the Fifty Shades movies, best fleeting moments before drowning in cheese) have played up her ability to waver between self-effacement and insouciance. Both of those qualities come out when she’s flirting with Harrison, gushing over his talent while also negging his limited production palette and love of Phantom Planet’s “California.”
The brief appearance of The O.C. theme song is one of The High Note’s few concessions to the existence of music made in the past 30-plus years. (The fact that another is a reference to DJ Khaled makes clear his mysterious and terrifying iron grip on Hollywood.) Though it’s set today, there are times when the movie transparently yearns to be taking place during the period that it tries to pass off as Grace’s ’90s heyday, when classic rock and adjacent sounds were a more visible part of music culture. When the screenplay mentions that Maggie’s musically inclined parents met backstage at a Paul Simon concert, it’s obvious that the audience is supposed to picture post-hippies grooving to Still Crazy After All These Years, not the Rhythm Of The Saints tour where it would have actually happened. This time-bending quality would be more charming if the movie weren’t also about a Carole King-loving white woman who wants nothing more than to guide the careers of the two most prominent Black characters in the movie—a get-your-dream-girls narrative about making the world safe for tasteful, organic pop-soul arrangements.
To be fair, the movie also soft-pedals Ross’ Grace, who never feels quite imposing enough to live up to her diva reputation. One of the best sequences comes early, when Ganatra intercuts Grace’s tour performances with her exacting, exhausting rehearsal process, efficiently synthesizing her talent, hard work, and ego. Elsewhere, the filmmakers misuse Ross’ ability to project warmth and intelligence, softening Grace instead of sharpening her. At one point, she defends her reluctance to make a new album by explaining the statistical improbability of a single by a Black woman over 40 ever reaching number one, raising several provocative questions. Does the music industry pathologically set its older stars out to pasture early even when they’re successful? Does Grace have an irrational need to hit number one despite her massive fame, fortune, and fanbase? Could disappointing new music damage a solid legacy? The High Note is too polite to press further on any of these issues, and lets them drop.
The characters’ overall niceness makes the movie pleasant in the moment—and easy to shrug off as a fantasy. Ganatra and screenwriter Flora Greeson do some shrugging off themselves to keep that fantasy alive: The movie features an abrupt yet predictably stupid twist in the final 15 minutes that’s treated like a crazy coincidence, rather than the byproduct of a particularly insular and nepotism-happy industry. It’s hard not to think about this angle while watching a movie that stars the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, playing opposite the daughter of Diana Ross and a record executive. The High Note may not demonstrate much musical expertise, but it constantly evokes the blasé, medium-talent freedom of industry lifers.