Producers: Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner Director: Nisha Ganatra Screenplay: Flora Greeson Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Zoë Chao, Eddie Izzard, June Diane Raphael, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson and Diplo Distributor: Focus Features
Wish-fulfillment fantasies set in the music business usually focus on a guy or gal who wants to become a recording star as a solo singer or hot-shot guitarist. The dreamer in this one wants to be a recording star too, but of a different sort: her goal is to produce hit albums, not sing or play on them. Let’s just say that doesn’t come across as the loftiest of ambitions—or the most cinematically exciting.
In the case of “The High Note,” moreover, the script by Flora Greeson is so cluttered with clichés, implausibility and coincidence that by the close even the most credulous viewer will probably be slapping his or her forehead in exasperated disbelief.
Nonetheless there’s pleasure to be had in watching Tracee Ellis Ross doing what amounts to a homage to her mother Diana as Grace Davis, a diva with a long career and a big following. Grace also has a crusty manager named Jack (Ice Cube), who’s negotiating a permanent slot at a Vegas casino for her, even though Grace likes to tour and is leery about the prospect of settling into something that feels very late-career.
Another person who thinks the Vegas deal is a bad idea is Grace’s assistant Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a mousy but ambitious sort who’s been seeing to the singer’s wants and needs for three years. Maggie is a pop music junkie—we meet her father Max (Bill Pullman), an old-school DJ, late in the film, and that explains her encyclopedic knowledge—and she believes that what Grace should do is release a new album.
And that’s not all—Maggie’s sure that she’s the one who should produce it. In fact, she’s been secretly working on a remix of Grace’s classic hits—something that sends Jack into the sort of seething paroxysm that Ice Cube is so good at when he hears about it. Maggie should stick to her job, Jack snarls, and not try to intrude on his space. And though Grace appreciates Maggie, she can be curt and shrill when the girl fails to keep her schedule in proper order.
Still, Maggie persists despite supposedly wry warnings from her typically tart-tongued roommate Katie (Zoë Chao) and admonitions from Grace’s brash housekeeper Gail (June Diane Raphael).
A new wrinkle is added, moreover, when Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.). They bump into one another “cute,” of course—getting into a debate about their favorite songs while waiting to check out at a grocery store. And when she hears him perform at a little outdoor gig, she’s so impressed that she can’t help telling him that she’s a big-time producer and offers him her services.
In no time at all the two are spending a lot of time together, working on new songs and laying down some tracks, with Maggie at the soundboard at last, even if the shots that are supposed to demonstrate her producing acumen only show that she can push levers and knobs. The trouble, plot-wise, is that she’s giving so much time to David that her work for Grace suffers. And when she tries to manipulate things so that David will open for Grace at an album release party, everything falls apart. David learns Maggie’s been lying to him about her job and sulks off, and her days as an assistant are over. What to do but go back home to Max and get some sympathy from the old man?
In a romantic comedy-with-music like this, such an apparent collapse of the dream is inevitable in the third act, of course, but so too is the ultimate reconciliation—and that’s what we get here, as all three major characters wind up at Max’s place. But Greeson isn’t content with that; she adds a revelation so outlandishly coincidental that even in a fantasy like this, it invites the worst sort of derisive laughter. Simply put, the twist “The High Note” delivers in the last act is a low blow indeed.
Nonetheless, up to that point fans of “Behind the Music”-style nonsense can find a good deal to enjoy here. Johnson is as bland as ever, but Ross delivers strongly, making Grace a believably mercurial prima donna, and Harrison is as charming as David as he was chilling as Luce. It’s a pity that people like Pullman and Eddie Izzard, as a business insider Maggie calls on for help with her schemes for David, have so little to do, and that Chao and Raphael are stuck with such sitcom-level material, but it’s fun watching Ice Cub smolder and shout.
The production side is fine too, with Theresa Guleserian’s production design and Jenny Eagan’s costumes (especially for Ross, of course) impressively glitzy and Jason McCormick’s cinematography excellent. On the other hand, the music—especially David’s—isn’t sufficiently extraordinary to make you believe the fairy-tale, and the editing by Wendy Greene Bricmont could be sharper; at 113 minutes, the movie outstays its welcome. A few shots of limo rides could easily be dispensed with. In the end this “Note” doesn’t aim very high, and then only sporadically his the target. But as Ross plays her, Grace is something to see.