How does one stay relevant in an industry that values current profits over lifetime achievements? This is the dilemma that music superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) finds herself in for much of Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note. Despite her 11 Grammy awards, and still touring the globe playing sold out shows, Davis has not released new music in a long time. Her manager, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube), revels in the easy money and opportunities, such as a proposed Vegas residency, that come with simply “playing the hits”, however, her personal assistant Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) thinks it is time to give the world new material.
A passionate lover of music, and Davis’ biggest fan, Sherwoode dreams of one day becoming a music producer. When not tending to Davis’ schedule and picking up the singer’s dry cleaning, Sherwoode is in the studio secretly working on remixes of Davis’ iconic songs. Unfortunately, the persistent assistant learns the hard way that breaking into the industry is no easy feat.
After being chastised by Robertson for overstepping her bounds, Sherwoode takes it upon herself to find an upcoming artist, David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), to groom. However, balancing the demands that come with being Davis’ assistant with the rigors of being a producer for a new artist prove to be more difficult than she could have imagined.
The High Note carries a few similarities to Nisha Ganatra’s previous film Late Night. Both works centre around aging women trying to stay relevant in an industry obsessed with youth. It is only through the persistence of younger women who work for them, and idolize them, that these icons find the strength to reconnect with their true self. Despite the common tropes, The High Note sways to its own charming beat.
Backed by an infectious soundtrack that will arguably be stuck in one’s head for the rest of the summer, Ganatra’s film is both familiar and engaging. Much like the fans who pack arenas to see Davis, the audience knows the exact tones that The High Note will hit every step of the way. However, one cannot help but get swept up in the melodic world the film creates. Part of this is due to the chemistry that spawns from Davis and Sherwoode’s complicated friendship.
Davis may be the the focal point of Sherwoode’s sphere, but it is the ambitious assistant who is the real focus of Ganatra’s film. Through Johnson’s strong work as Sherwoode, carrying an earnest charm in each scene, the film effectively conveys its theme of believing in one’s own abilities when faced with those telling you otherwise. Her drive to break through the glass ceiling of the music industry is nicely contrasted with the box that Davis is put in at the current stage of her career.
As if a Fabergé egg whose beauty is behind layers of glass, Davis is confined by the image that others have of her. She has been convinced that the slightest deviation from the circular lane she is traveling in will jeopardize the career which she sacrificed so much to build. While Ganatra’s film misses a golden opportunity to really dive into the racism and sexism that Davis had to endure to reach superstar status, Ellis Ross still manages to bring plenty of layers to the role. She humanizes Davis even when character is indulging in her diva ways.
The film may not offer much new from a narrative standpoint, but its themes of friendship and loving one’s self resonate. The High Note sings a charming tune that, while familiar, will satisfy on a breezy summer night.