‘The High Note” is a music-centered comedy that evokes deep-comfort dives such as “Beyond the Lights” and “A Star is Born.”
It’s a movie drenched in catchy pop hooks and aspirational romance. If this iteration doesn’t quite achieve the full liftoff of the best of the form, it still manages to hit more than a few pleasure centers as a summery slice of light escapism.
One of “The High Note’s” chief strengths is the radiant Tracee Ellis Ross, who for so long has been the best thing about anything she’s in, and here claims center stage with toughness, humor and almost feral unpredictability. She plays Grace Davis, an R&B diva who’s been in coast mode for several years; as the film opens, she’s being offered a residency in Las Vegas that will offer the perfect glide path to wealthy obsolescence.
It will also put her out to pasture creatively, a fact that her longtime manager Jack couldn’t care less about. The only member of her entourage who still believes Grace hasn’t long since peaked is her personal assistant Maggie, an adoring acolyte who nurses a secret dream to be a record producer.
Maggie, in other words, is young, hungry and ambitious, which makes Dakota Johnson’s performance so curious: Languid and doe-eyed, Johnson’s breathy delivery and recessive persona never suggest higher stakes than achieving the right style points with her vintage fringed suede jacket. She’s lovely to look at and can never be accused of overacting, but in terms of conveying single-minded drive, Johnson is no match for Ross’s carefully calibrated tonal swings between imperiousness, self-awareness, isolation and down-to-earth intimacy.
That’s a shame, because even though there’s a low-key subplot involving an attractive singer, “The High Note” is essentially a love story between two women whose interpersonal politics are complex and ever shifting. It should be “The Devil Wears Prada” with sicker beats.
But director Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night”), working from a script by Flora Greeson, keeps undercutting the story’s most promising moments by meandering away from them, especially in a third act whose twist is no less preposterous for being so glaringly obvious from the get-go.
Thankfully, “The High Note” is full of funny, charming and diverting supporting performances, especially Ice Cube as the perpetually grumpy Jack; June Diane Raphael as Grace’s catty house manager; and Kelvin Harrison Jr., who delivers an impressive and utterly persuasive turn as a gifted singer Maggie meets in a Laurel Canyon market. (Eddie Izzard and Diplo also pop up in cameos.)
Throw in some fun songs, sun-kissed Los Angeles locations, stunning wardrobe changes and an overall vibe of generous-hearted fun, and “The High Note” makes for a welcome digression from real-life irritations. It may not soar, necessarily, but it hums along pleasantly enough.