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‘The High Note’ falls a little flat

Curiously, Tracee Ellis Ross plays second fiddle in a movie about an aging pop diva

Grace Davis, the fictional pop/R&B star played by Tracee Ellis Ross in The High Note, may be the star of her own life. But in the movie, she’s second fiddle to her assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson).

The High Note, out Friday on video on demand, was originally set for a theatrical release earlier in May, but that plan was upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Ross plays an aging but beloved pop diva whose handlers are pushing her toward the vocalist equivalent of a Boca Raton, Florida, retirement: a Las Vegas residency. Maggie, her 20-something assistant, is a longtime Davis stan whose primary job is to keep Davis’ life running seamlessly.

Both women are at a crossroads in their respective careers. Davis needs to decide whether she’s ready to become a Billboard chart golden girl by releasing an album of “Greatest Live Hits,” as her manager Jack (Ice Cube) would like, or attempt something riskier. And Maggie is trying to figure out a way to transition from gofer to producer. She gets some practice when she starts working with David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an early-career singer trying to put together his first album.

Directed by Nisha Ganatra, the film takes us through Maggie’s duties as a put-upon assistant. Though Davis can be sharp-tongued, she’s no Miranda Priestly. The two women have a largely tame working relationship until Maggie speaks up when Davis has a session with a well-known, highly sought-after producer and insults his work. The subtext is clear: Running the career of a global music star and producing more hits are things men do. Who does this unproven neophyte think she is, anyway?

Kelvin Harrison Jr. (left) stars as David Cliff and Dakota Johnson (right) as Maggie Sherwood in The High Note.

Glen Wilson/Focus Features

The actual star of The High Note is Johnson, who, like Jonah Hill’s character in Get Him to the Greek, plays a devoted uber-fan assistant to a star whose luster is beginning to dull. And like Hill, Johnson is the one person in the star’s orbit who has cleaned the wax out of her ears enough to still hear and appreciate what makes the vocalist she serves special.

The best moments of The High Note take place in the production studio, where Maggie is guiding David through the process of recording an album. It’s easy to see how her assistant skills have made her a talent whisperer. She offers guidance with a deft, almost invisible touch, a coach who is able to coax nervous singers to let go and safely guide them through fjords of self-doubt.

But Johnson’s muted performance doesn’t quite find the happy medium between calming and comatose, particularly in scenes with Ross, who channels her baseline effervescence into something cheekier, with sharper, more authoritative edges. The longer I watched, the more I kept mentally superimposing Elisabeth Moss over Johnson and wondering about the choices she would make in the role. Moss, too, has played an early-career wunderkind overshadowed by a towering genius, but she did so without blandly fading into the fabric of the production.

Johnson’s underwhelming presence, though, is inversely related to her screen and storytime — The High Note is really a film about Maggie’s journey to becoming a producer, with Davis and David providing the road for the trip. Ganatra’s chilled-out voyage to womanly self-actualization could stand a little more grandeur, thereby providing Ross the ability to shine the way that Rami Malek did when playing Freddie Mercury, or Taron Egerton’s burst of sparkling magnetism in Rocketman. If one is tapping the daughter of Diana Ross to play a global megastar, one might as well go the route of massive stadium filled with screaming extras, no?

Dakota Johnson (left) stars as Maggie Sherwood, Ice Cube (third from left) as Jack Robertson and Tracee Ellis Ross (right) as Grace Davis in The High Note.

Glen Wilson/Focus Features

The middle C nature of The High Note could also be improved with better songwriting. The film’s climactic single, “Love Myself,” written by Sarah Aarons and Greg Kurstin, sounds too much like what Bridget Jones would deem “Sad FM: easy listening for the over-30s.” And it’s too much in contrast with the depiction of Davis as a woman who is still vivacious and still much loves her work, even as she harbors doubts that a black woman over 40 can put out a hit record. In short, The High Note could do with Davis tapping a little more into her inner Tina Turner.

Writing a convincingly catchy pop tune for film is a tall order, and listening to “Love Myself” brought on a new wave of grief and appreciation for Adam Schlesinger, the late Fountains of Wayne co-founder whose compositions enlivened That Thing You Do!, Music and Lyrics and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. The misfire of “Love Myself” ultimately encapsulates what left me cold about The High Note. It’s a film about women demanding and claiming more for themselves professionally because they’ve earned it and they deserve it. Ross is an actress who consistently punches above the weight class of the material she’s given. And yet in the biggest moment of her film career to date, it’s obvious that she deserves more, too.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.