Monday, May 25, 2020
REVIEW: The High Note
In a key scene in Nisha Ganatra's "The High Note", the lead character Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) explains to her assistant (Dakota Johnson) the uphill battle she faces as a black female pop star trying to stay relevant in her 40s. Convincingly spoken by Ross, there is a sense of metatextual commentary in the scene, with Ross being the daughter of music legend Diana Ross, who would have surely have faced similar issues throughout her decades-spanning career. And if you didn't already connect the dots, Ganatra leans in further to the homage through the character's glamorous style and the upbeat pop diva style. But while "The High Note" is decidedly not a Diana Ross biopic, it struggles to make its protagonist an intriguing personality in her own right.
Davis' story takes place within the Los Angeles music scene, a place she calls home when she isn't jet-setting the world as a touring artist. As one such tour comes to end, she ponders her next career move. Her label and management team suggest lucrative offers to record a live album and accept a residency in Las Vegas. Davis, however, wants to a rejuvenate her sound with new music. But the only support for her vision comes from an unlikely source - her devoted and ambitious personal assistant.
Ageism and racism in the entertainment industry are a recurring fascination for Nisha Ganatra, who previously explored the themes within the context of late night television in 2019's "Late Night". Yet while that film offered soul-searching complexity for Emma Thompson to explore through a flawed character, Ross's Davis isn't afforded the same sense of an inner life. As she performs to sold-out audiences and lives a life of luxury and privilege, the script barely gives her a distinctive persona aside from her hard-working attitude and talent. Indeed, she is hardly a retired has-been hoping for a comeback, contrary to the claims of June Diane Raphael in an amusing but perfunctory role.
Instead, the star of the show is Dakota Johnson as the assistant (herself a scion of Hollywood royalty), whose character gets a fully realized arc that is sorely lacking in the film's central character. Through understated confidence and palpable chemistry with another musician played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., she gives a dynamic turn as her character becomes embroiled in moral conflicts and a tender romance. But ultimately, her commendable performance is a rare bright spark in a story that ultimately fades under the shadow of a clichéd, shallow screenplay.