The High Note follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), a personal assistant in LA and walking encyclopedia of music trivia who’s lifelong dream is to make it as a music producer, not an easy feat in a city where a young female producer is an extreme rarity. Instead, she has committed 24 hours a day for three years to her superstar boss: Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), buying green juices Grace won’t drink, clearing out dresses Grace won’t wear and making her own cut of Grace’s new live album without telling her. Grace Davis is a pop icon whose fame and talent is matched by her wealth and ego, but now finds herself having to face the stark reality that only one black woman over 40 has ever made it to number one, and that Grace’s fans might not want new music any more.
The film thrives on the chemistry between Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross. Both are so intensely likeable that their one-to-one moments are the film’s heart and the comedy highlights. Ross is perfect casting, not only because, as the daughter of pop legend Diana Ross, she more than has the pipes for the film’s original songs, but also because even when Grace Davis is at her most ‘diva’ (complaining that Maggie follows her around too much, which Maggie quite fairly points out is what she’s paid to do) Ross is loveable and hilarious.
Having directed Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in last year’s Late Night, The High Note director Nisha Ganatra has a track record of creating great on-screen duos with women who are consistently the best thing about whatever it is they’re in. The romantic heart of this film is the platonic boss-employee relationship, so the flirtationship between Maggie and David (an aspiring artist and Maggie’s first client) feels like an unnecessary add-on.
The supporting cast are entertaining but fairly one dimensional. Maggie’s flatmate Katie largely fulfils the role of explaining Maggie’s character traits and slightly justifying how a PA can afford a huge flat with an equally huge balcony and views over Hollywood. The character of Grace’s long-term manager Jack (Ice Cube) is fairly muddled. On the one hand he’s supposed to be Grace’s number one supporter and best friend, but on the other he’s pushing her into a years-long Vegas contract and seems too eager to please the intensely irritating and patronisingly young record executives who can’t wait to tell Grace how much their mum’s love her.
The High Note is a comforting and entertaining watch and while it touches on the challenges faced by women in music as both artists and producers, there’s nothing here to overexert an audience. The narrative is predictable but the amusing storytelling interspersed with a great soundtrack of original songs and classics from the likes of Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke creates a heartwarming summer watch centred on two fabulous performances.
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