“The High Note” stays in familiar octaves but nails the melody

THE HIGH NOTE Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson have killer chemistry in a sunny if formulaic music dramedy.

Most people put clothes on; Tracee Ellis Ross wears them. In director Nisha Ganatra’s sunny new motion picture The High Note, we see how confidence and conviction can make old clothes (and old genres) feel fresh again.

Filled with warmth and optimism, and hidden between the gags and fashion, The High Note is ultimately a feel-good story about the way music helps us come together. The film follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), assistant to grounded glamour diva Grace Davis (Ross) by day, aspiring LA record producer by night. When she finally meets the artist of her dreams in new client David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she must find the confidence to chart her own course as a record producer.

Everything about this film feels designed to be comforting and nostalgic. Cinematographer Jason McCormick gives it a very retro feel, with plenty of uptempo montages and shots of vintage cars driving down the streets of LA. Grace Davis is a classic R&B singer, so the soundtrack selected by music supervisor Linda Cohen is filled with hits from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s and the new songs written for the film by Sarah Aarons and others, are fun and funky. Because of this earnest nostalgia, even plot twists that would otherwise seem cliché instead feel classic.

THE HIGH NOTE
Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Another unintentionally nostalgic element of McCormick’s cinematography is the amount of sunlight. (We used to go outside. Sigh.) It is so sunny. All the time. There are solar flares, shimmering outfits, and glistening clean interiors — anything to catch the light. There’s so much sun it’s sometimes hard to tell when the dark moments are happening. With all the nostalgia, music, and bright crisp photography, The High Note often feels like an extended feminist episode of Empire.

Despite being somewhat out of fashion these days, there is also a profound sense of optimism that pervades throughout The High Note. There is no question that things will work out. Conflicts will be hugged out. This feels like a turn-of-the-millennium workplace self-improvement dramedy we don’t see very often anymore, but with an incisive post-#MeToo edge.

Like Ganatra’s previous film, last year’s Late Night, The High Note is about women knowing and seizing the means of (media) production. Like Mindy Kaling’s Molly before her, Maggie is an archivist. She knows, appreciates, and preserves music history and it’s this knowledge that makes her the best in the room, even if it means she has to butt heads with her boss.

As with Emma Thompson’s aging late-night host in her previous film, Ganatra has an elder woman (Grace) confronting The New and her own professional/personal legacy. This gives The High Note some predictable plot points: we know that there will be a second-act fight where she says too much and the working pair have to temporarily separate. Less predictable, though, is how Ross handles such a complicated character. Like previous #BitchBosses before her, Ross gives Grace a maniacal confidence we can’t help but love and desire for ourselves. 

The High Note is about women knowing and seizing the means of (media) production.

But the iciness of these other bosses would have stood out here. Ganatra’s film is too summery for that. Instead, Ross maintains Grace’s compassion and her smile. She’s always warm, but heated when she needs to be. Grace is demanding of her team, but she remains human. Ross and Ice Cube, who plays her eccentric manager, Jack, have bubbly, infectious chemistry. Like their characters, these two work and play at the same time. 

The same goes for Grace’s “housekeeper” Gayle (the consistently hilarious June Diane Raphael). So much of their comedy comes from the blurred line between family and employee: we are constantly reminded that, though Grace is tough and successful, she respects and builds bonds with others. Unlike the aforementioned #BitchBosses of films like The Devil Wears Prada, The High Note takes care to show us why people would stay and work for Grace.

No matter how tough Grace needs to be, Ross never neglects to bestow some of her signature charm. Watching Grace overcome her shock at seeing how “the common folk” live while also forcing a sincere apology is a comic masterclass of inner conflict and deep play. It’s this kind of dynamism that prevents the film from being about any one person in particular. 

As our usher into the chaotic world of the LA music scene, Johnson’s journey is as important as Grace’s. In one scene, Grace reminds Maggie that her subject position as a successful black woman over 40 in the music industry is unique and beyond the scope of Maggie’s comprehension. Maggie rightly acknowledges that, at least, which elevates her dynamic beyond the white savior complex that so often plagues films like these.

Johnson’s an incredibly gracious actress who seems to truly know and understand her character. Granted, as the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson, playing a woman who’s grown up in the LA entertainment scene isn’t much of a stretch for her. But she’s hardly phoning it in: Maggie is self-possessed yet gentle, the ideal producer who is both wildly creative and attentive to her client. Watching her and Ross singing “No Scrubs” while driving down sunny LA is a microcosm of their relationship. Fun, fancy free, and unexpectedly harmonious.

Working again with a first-time screenwriter (this time Flora Greeson), Ganatra is slowly establishing herself as an insightful voice in feminist filmmaking. Whereas Late Night was about confronting and overcoming systemic issues, The High Note imagines a world moving beyond them. 

Rather than conclude a white savior narrative as one might have learned to expect from previous films of the genre, Ganatra proactively makes the film about the journey of a collective, a sort-of family, rather than that of a single empowered (white) person. In a time of such extreme isolation, The High Note is a comforting tonic that reminds us what’s good about being outside and being together.

The High Note grooves its way onto VOD May 29th.

The High Note Trailer:

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