Movie review: ‘The High Note’ strikes a delightful chord
Nothing sinks a movie like predictability. But in these uncertain times, the finely-tuned comedy of “The High Note” proves a welcome retreat. Most of what works is due to a top-notch cast exuding charm, good looks and just enough musical ability to strike a delightful chord. It’s pitch-perfect, light-hearted entertainment for COVID-weary eyes - and ears.
The scene is the glitzy world of L.A.’s recording industry. Cue a ton of establishing shots of the iconic cylindrical Capitol Records building. Inside, we find Maggie (Dakota Johnson), the put-upon personal assistant to Grace Davis, the demanding diva played by Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”). You’d be correct in thinking it’s a redo of “The Devil Wears Prada,” except “The High Note” is not as mean-spirited, but it does share the killer wardrobe.
The daughter of a disc jockey, Maggie loves Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke and is a walking encyclopedia of music history. She wants to be a producer but is stuck picking up dry-cleaning, booking private jets and stirring green smoothies. All this while Grace’s record company and manager (a snarling and scowling Ice Cube - is there any other?) conspire to put the aging star out to pasture with a Las Vegas residency. Except, Grace isn’t going anywhere until she fulfills her desire to cut a new album - her first in a decade.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“Waves,” “Luce”) is Maggie’s first musical discovery. They meet cute at a grocery store. Soon, she’s producing his debut album - on the sly from Grace, of course. As expected, Maggie runs herself ragged. Her two worlds eventually collide into a quagmire. You know how it goes. Egos are bruised and fallout is inevitable. It’s the same old song. But, Johnson as the rising star and Ross doing her own singing as the superstar (think: a lighter version of her legendary mother, Diana Ross) are an inspired pairing. Their likability goes a long way in sustaining the predictable story.
Nisha Ganatra (the underrated “Late Night”) directs with a sure hand from a script by Flora Greeson that weaves the conflicts of both women together into a whole lot of self-empowerment. Greeson’s script also calls out the music industry over its long-standing practices of ageism and sexism, which is something to sing about. Plus, there’s some romance, some fun songs, a few laughs and a big ‘ol twist that isn’t as surprising as the filmmakers might think. But whatever - all the parts blend into harmony thanks to Johnson’s immense every-woman appeal and Ellis Ross’s knack at being a diva with a heart of gold.
An amusing lineup of supporting players provides enough laughs to keep the movie bopping along. Zoe Chao is Maggie’s BFF, the always reliable Bill Pullman is her doting dad, June Diane Raphael (“Long Shot”) is Grace’s loony house manager, and British comic Eddie Izzard makes a brief cameo.
The film was originally scheduled to open in theaters two weeks ago, but will instead open May 29 as a video on demand for a $20 rental fee. Sounds steep, but it’s worth it once you consider what you’d pay for tickets and popcorn in a theater. It’s like getting it for a song.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The High Note”
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Zoe Chao, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman.
(PG-13 for for some strong language and suggestive references.)