It’s a cool idea: cast Tracee Ellis Ross as a pop superstar very much in the mold of her mother, diva supreme Diana Ross. Just don’t expect an imitation. In her first major musical role, the Golden Globe-winning star of ABC’s Black-ish acts and sings her role with a blazing ferocity and feeling that are distinctly her own. What a drag that The High Note mostly muffles the Ross fireworks in a by-the-numbers dramedy about the music biz that delivers the usual blah-blah about how humanity is the first thing that gets lost on the road to success. Ross, you’ll be pleased to know, refuses to be sucked under by the cliché-filled quicksand of a plot. She’s unstoppable.
Serviceably directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) from a formulaic script by newcomer Flora Greeson, The High Note centers on the relationship between headliner Grace Davis (Ross) — cue the montage of Rolling Stone covers — and her personal assistant, Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson). If you want to see that dynamic done to scalpel-sharp perfection, check out 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria with Kristen Stewart serving at the whim of aging film goddess Juliette Binoche without sacrificing her own spiky independence.
The High Note, when forced to choose between the harsh reality of the dominant/submissive equation or the far more digestible fantasy, invariably takes the route that goes down easy. That’s a disservice to Ross and Johnson, who come to this party ready to play, but seldom get a chance to cut loose. Johnson, doing a variation on her 50 Shades of Gray character minus the whips and chains, shows how Maggie submits to the imperious demands made by Miss Davis for two reasons: 1.) She’s a fan. 2.) She sees working for the icon as a stepping stone to a career as a music producer. In secret, Maggie’s been putting together her own remix of a live album of Grace’s greatest hits. As for the boss lady, she’s mostly angry at herself for letting her longtime manager Jack (Ice Cube) manipulate her into recycled concerts and a Las Vegas residency that requires more of the same. As Grace asks Oprah: “When there are no more surprises, who am I doing this for?”
Indeed. For the first half of the film, Ross and Johnson manage to coax this situation for welcome laughs and hard-won wisdom. The give-and-take between the two has an acutely comic self-awareness. Grace knows how she sounds when she asks Maggie to remind her of how many Grammys she’s won (it’s 11). Yes, Maggie has to pick up Grace’s dry cleaning and face rebukes for being an unacceptable “six minutes late” for an airport pickup. Grace also recognizes the talent potential in the assistant, however, who may be the only one in her protective circle who encourages her desire to create fresh material.
But just when you think The High Note is giving off real music world signals like the kind Bradley Cooper layered into A Star is Born, the plot degenerates into daytime drama histrionics. Maggie falls hard for David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., criminally wasted), a young singer she tricks into hiring her as a producer. And when Ariana Grande drops out as the opening act for Grace’s album release party, Maggie plans to sub in David without telling him or Grace.
When everything backfires, Maggie retreats to the Catalina home of her widowed father Max (Bill Pullman), a radio DJ who specializes in cover versions of hit songs. Aside from filling the soundtrack with the likes of Donny Hathaway on John Lennon, Cher interpreting Bob Dylan and David doing Sam Cooke, the device serves nothing except to bring the whole cast together for a tearjerking, credulity-stretching climax that would shame the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful. What does work is hearing Grace take the stage for a new song, “Love Myself” that shows Ross can hold the screen as if by divine right. Loving her is easy — it’s swallowing the movie’s sudsy, soap-operatics that’s hard.