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‘The High Note’

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Focus Features

Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel

The High Note is an entertaining if softened look at the high end domain of the music business. It has a sweet center and skirts many of the bigger issues that seem to peek around the corners. It is fortunate that it contains strong performances from many of its players, resulting in an enjoyable rom-com/behind-the-music hybrid.

The film features a vibrant Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis, a star of grand proportions on the threshold of middle age. Ross is the daughter of Diana Ross — but the film is in no way about that legendary icon. Instead, it is actually a much smaller movie about a transitional moment in an epic career.  

Davis’s personal assistant is the earnest and overwhelmed Maggie Sherwoode (played with just the right eagerness by Dakota Johnson). She has been Grace’s assistant for three years but her dream is to be a record producer; this drives the simple through-line. 

After a misstep with Grace, she meets and befriends a gifted musician, David Cliff (charismatic Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), who is both self-effacing and unexplainably rich. Much to Maggie’s confusion, David plays supermarket openings and bar mitzvahs and doesn’t seem to want to move beyond these comfortable gigs. Maggie sees great potential and makes a move that ends up both bold and dishonest, temporarily fracturing their budding relationship, and causing damage she did not anticipate.  

The best scenes are those that focus on Grace and her frustration with being told who she is. Following a scene in which she faces off with executives who basically explain to her what her brand should be, she has a powerful scene with Maggie venting that this is the world she has had to face her entire career. 

Ross (best known for her portrayal of Rainbow Johnson on ABC’s sitcom Blackish) is able to navigate the humor that surrounds the over-the-top and extravagant life of a diva with the inner core of someone who has faced incredibly challenging hurdles and obstacles. 

Grace is not The Devil Wears Prada; played by Ross, she is a human being who has made difficult decisions because of both her race and gender. As she weighs the option of a Vegas residency, we see her question her own judgment as a creative artist. A revelation later in the film (that is not a huge surprise) speaks volumes to the course of Grace’s life.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is pure charm and ease. Even in stillness, there is a warmth and openness that makes us hope for him to get his professional due. Dakota Johnson is an actor who is easy to like. She is always watchable and makes Maggie’s growth understandable if unsurprising. 

Ice Cube plays Jack Robertson, Grace’s longtime manager, who has been with her since the beginning. He takes a role that could slide into predictability and caricature and infuses it with genuine mind and heart.  While he mines all of the laughs, it is his understanding of the business that show both fire and passion. His commitment to Grace is real and goes beyond their fiscal connection.  

Bill Pullman appears briefly Maggie’s supportive father. He isn’t given much to do but he has a pleasant, uncomplicated presence. Eddie Izzard has a cameo as a musician from whom Maggie asks a large favor. The scene takes place in a sauna and is as strange as one would expect with the off-beat Izzard.

One of the film’s strongest elements is the exceptional soundtrack. Both Ross and Harrison provide their own terrific vocals.  It should be noted that this is the first time Ross has sung publicly, and it as a powerhouse debut. “Stop for a Moment” is nothing short of glorious.  

There are not a great deal of fireworks in Flora Gleeson’s screenplay nor in Nisha Ganatra’s direction; the film eschews melodrama for real interactions. Together, with a first-rate cast, they have made The High Note tell a hopeful story in an engaging way.  

Rated PG-13, The High Note is available On Demand.