There’s an easy and addictive groove to “The High Note,” a magical music industry movie that wafts over you like a great pop song at a summer jam. Is it the deepest, most profound thing ever? Nah, but damn if it just doesn’t feel good, hitting all the right beats in all the right ways, making the air seem warmer, the lights more twinkly. Don’t you just wanna feel good right now?
Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson co-star as soul music legend Grace Davis and her assistant, Maggie, respectively, and there’s an extra layer of significance to their casting. Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross, is explicitly styled to look like her mother in her disco heyday in certain shots; and Johnson, the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, and granddaughter of Tippi Hedren, would know a thing or two about Hollywood hotshots and their harried helpers.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film that has a twinge of ironic resonance in which Grace and Maggie cruise down Sunset Boulevard in a sports car singing TLC’s “No Scrubs.” In the distance, Grace, ahem, graces, the side of a building, larger than life, and one can’t help but think that both women, the stars of ABC’s “Blackish” and the “50 Shades” franchise, must have indeed also personally experienced that exact moment.
Maggie is Grace’s assistant, but what Maggie wants is to be a producer. A bona fide music nerd and the daughter of a disc jockey, she spends her nights tinkering with Pro Tools and her days making coffee runs. Grace is a superstar who everyone regards as on her last legs, good for churning out greatest hits albums and nostalgia-soaked Las Vegas residencies, not anything creatively new or exciting. Maggie believes Grace still has it in her, but does Grace?
Then, just as we’re vibing on this potent Ross-Johnson chemistry, in waltzes Kelvin Harrison Jr. with that face and that smile and a killer line about Phantom Planet’s “California,” and it sends the whole thing over the top. Harrison Jr. is one of the most exciting new stars in quite a while, and while he had breakout performances last year in “Luce” and “Waves,” they were intensely dramatic downers. Witnessing the full brunt of his charm, unleashed in this romantic leading role is almost too much to bear.
Harrison Jr. also gets to display his incredible pipes as David, an up-and-coming musician whom Maggie discovers at the Laurel Canyon Country Store. She sees an opportunity to shape his sound and make a name for herself, and soon she’s burning the candle at both ends trying to launch her music career while maintaining Grace’s, too.
The script, a first outing by Flora Greeson, is a bit pat and formulaic, and there’s a twist or two that’s blatantly telegraphed from the outset. But the trio of Ross, Johnson and Harrison Jr. are absolutely infectious. And while “The High Note” is a heightened reality, they each bring a sense of authenticity and groundedness to the emotional layers of their characters.
The film is helmed confidently by Nisha Ganatra, who also directed “Late Night,” and she brings an energetic sense of verve and dynamism to the look and pace and oh-so-much gorgeous warm light in the form of California sunshine and fire pits and the glow of neon. It’s a showbiz fable that also wants to grapple with the realities of sexism and ageism in the industry, but it’s far more successful at offering up a refreshing swig of intoxicating Los Angeles fantasy. Might as well drink up.
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