While Golden Globe winner Tracee Ellis Ross (BLACK-ISH) has had, or is still having, a successful career on TV, she hasn’t done nearly as well on the big screen. It’s been 11 years since her last film, LABOR PAINS, which starred Lindsay Lohan. Did anyone outside of Romania and Russia even see it? Hopefully putting that experience behind her, Ellis Ross is now back on screen again in THE HIGH NOTE, this time playing an aging pop singer facing a career crisis.
Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson, THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON; BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE; SUSPIRIA) is a 30-year-old, personal assistant to Grace Davis (played by Ellis). Maggie’s been working for Grace for three years and has the job fairly down pat, although Grace has her diva moments when Maggie can do nothing right in Grace’s opinion. One day Maggie meets David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., WAVES; J.T. LEROY), an undiscovered singer who lives a curiously lush life in his well-appointed home high up in the Hollywood hills while he busks for pocket change on the streets of Los Angeles. While Grace is trying to figure out her next career move along with her long-time manager Jack Robertson (rapper-producer-actor Ice Cube, the BARBERSHOP trilogy), Maggie, too, wants to move her own career in a new direction. She convinces David that she’s an experienced music professional who wants to produce his first album. Grace and Maggie’s worlds bump along until they collide.
If you noticed, I started this review talking about Ellis Ross but then framed the film’s synopsis around Johnson’s character. That’s the big problem with THE HIGH NOTE. Its focus is on the wrong character. I like Dakota Johnson as an actress because she’s not afraid to make bold choices in the projects she takes on, and she’s perfectly fine here (except that the character is about six years too old), but Maggie is a far less interesting character than Grace. Sure, both women are at a crossroads in their respective careers but I’d say that Grace has been dealing with people telling her who she is and who she needs to be for almost as long as Maggie has been alive. If Maggie fails as a producer of an album by a musician that no one’s ever heard of, it’s no big deal. She can always try again. If Grace, however, goes against her manager and record label and goes off in a different direction musically, she risks losing her fans and damaging her reputation. It’s a far bigger gamble. I’ll concede that Rod Stewart releasing not one but five albums of jazz standards didn’t derail his career but it certainly didn’t bring him many new fans.
The other big problem with the story is the humongous plot hole surrounding David’s accommodation, which doesn’t seem to concern Maggie in the least. Is he a trust fund baby, a drug dealer or is he simply housesitting for a rich friend? You’d think she’d ask the guy she’s about to have a professional and personal relationship with. It even extends further later on in the film when Maggie invites David to Tracee’s big event at her home.
Unlike that other recent on-screen diva, Miranda Priestly, Grace is extremely likeable even as she’s barking out orders to everyone around her. It’s not like Ellis Ross doesn’t know how to be a diva though. Her mother is Diana Ross! There are also plenty of other divas running around that she could have used as inspiration including Mariah Carey and Celine Dion. I’m going to pin the blame on director Nisha Ganatra (LATE NIGHT) and writer Flora Greeson for not putting more fire and ice into Grace’s veins.
All tolled though, THE HIGH NOTE is not horrible. It’s just very do-re-meh.
THE HIGH NOTE opened in Hong Kong today, June 25th. It’s also streaming right now on Netflix if you’re still stuck inside.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, June 26th, 8:30 am HK time!
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