The High Note
- Emma Simmonds
- 25 May 2020
Dakota Johnson leads an enjoyable and empowered but somewhat compromised music industry dramedy
Anyone who saw Kitty Green's recent film The Assistant will have witnessed a bleakly believable picture of life as an entertainment industry dogsbody. The High Note opts for a more glamorous tack; its far sunnier story sees such jobs as precisely the kind of foot-in-the-door they are advertised as, irrespective of the indignities.
Dakota Johnson – in casual, girlish mode – is Maggie, the able, fawning assistant of middle-aged singing megastar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), who's celebrated for the woman she was, not is. Grace is frustrated that she's being pressured into agreeing to a Vegas residency and plugging another live album, when all she wants to do is make new music.
Maggie is also a wannabe producer, struggling to catch a break. After secretly editing Grace's live tracks and getting no credit for it, she's put firmly in her place and sets about securing an up-and-comer to experiment with. Luckily, a grocery store 'meet-cute' delivers handsome, aspiring singer David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) into her contacts, and he unwittingly becomes Maggie's guinea pig.
Director Nisha Ganatra follows up the largely marvellous Mindy Kaling collaboration Late Night with an outrageously and fittingly gorgeous film about the LA music scene, which has a similarly fractious cross-generational relationship at its core. Ellis Ross has enough sass to convince as a musical diva – she is Diana Ross's daughter after all – and she's particularly good when mischievous or mad. There's typically scene-stealing stuff from June Diane Raphael, too, as Grace's housekeeper Gail, who revels in her proximity to fame and fortune, shamelessly seizing upon freebies and offering Maggie unsolicited tips to do likewise.
The screenplay from Flora Greeson, however, tends toward the trite – a sharper, more cynical edge may have lent it more credibility – while an unnecessarily and underexplored twist strikes a bit of a bum chord. If The High Note can feel featherweight, it wins points for poking fun at its own triviality – for example when Maggie's surgeon housemate gives Maggie and David a humbling taste of her day. Yet it has a commitment to female empowerment at its core. The film touches on the way the young are exploited and dismissed and highlights persistent industry prejudices; it doesn't matter how fabulous and ostensibly powerful Grace is, she has a clear and humiliating sell-by-date.
Although Grace's age and race are mentioned as obstacles in her continued musical relevance, the film positions a young white woman in the lead; there's even something of the white saviour about Maggie as she applies her benevolent wisdom to two contrasting (black) musical careers. This kind of compromised approach is a perfect illustration as to why commercial films sometimes struggle to get to the heart of issues, however well-intentioned. Nevertheless, The High Note is a largely earnest and energetic tale of women fighting to be seen and heard, and whatever shape its feminism takes it's welcome.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 29 May.