The High Note

At the Movies Blog
This is a movie music lovers will enjoy.

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross

We keep hearing that there aren’t enough women directors in Hollywood. Well, this movie is the first feature written by Flora Greeson, and it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra, who does a fine job as she did on Late Night (Emma Thompson, Mindy Kalin). Unfortunately, she has to contend with a weak script. Yet despite the music industry cliches (“Do you know how many Grammys I have?!!!”) and the predictable story (my wife early on guessed something that surprised me in the 3rd act) — the movie is still rather enjoyable. Since it’s music related, an analogy might be if one of my music buddies finds the Hall & Oates CD in my collection and makes fun of it. Sure, it’s not The Beatles, Dylan, Miles, or any of the greats, but you enjoy yourself as you’re singing along to it. You watch this movie and enjoy all the characters, who help in making this a better picture than what appears on the page.

This reminded me a bit of A Star is Born, but what’s refreshing is — the star being born isn’t another singer, but a woman (Dakota Johnson) who wants to go from being a personal assistant to a producer. It’s also refreshing that Grace Davis, the famous singer she’s working for, is played by Tracee Ellis Ross (daughter of Diana); she’s a bit of a jerk, but not over-the-top with it. 

Another part of this movie reminded me of the film Paul Simon wrote and starred in from 1980 — One-Trick Pony. He played an aging rock star, who has a mean producer (Rip Torn, who is greatly missed), and is getting push-back on a new album he wants to record (the label would rather have him go on all the shows performing his ‘60s hit about the Vietnam war — Soft Parachutes). 

In The High Note, it’s Ice Cube playing manager Jack Robertson who would rather have a “greatest hits/live” album that is a guaranteed money maker. It’s not what Grace wants to do, though. She feels it’s stifling her creativity. Jack also wants her to do a residency in Vegas, because it’s easy money without the rigors of touring; yet Grace enjoys the touring.

There are a few other people working for Grace, and they’re not as interesting (or in some instances, believable). 

David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) plays an up-and-coming singer, who is content to play farmer’s markets and small clubs. Wannabe producer Maggie (Dakota Johnson), starts pushing him to record his stuff properly. There’s a scene in a car when they listen to his songs, and she’s impressed, but comments on the drumming. It’s funny because when you’re hearing the song, you also wonder about the percussion being so loud. I think they should’ve written a more detailed critique of the song, that shows Maggie is really noticing a lot of details the average ear (or even the artist) doesn’t.

With so many storylines, I give Greeson credit for blending them together nicely and not forcing anything.

The romance worked nicely, and they did something that I rarely see with this type of story. After the meet-cute at a grocery store, where Cliff is ribbed for not knowing who Sam Cooke is…Maggie later goes to a party at his house. She’s smitten, but as they’re talking by the pool, a sexy woman comes over to quickly make out with him. After she walks away, he makes an excuse about her “not wanting anything serious.” 

Usually in love stories that involve talented male singers, I always wonder why they don’t have a woman (or women) in their life when they meet the protagonist of the movie. At least this movie tackled that. It’s also refreshing that Maggie doesn’t become obsessed with jealousy over that. She’s got bigger fish to fry — and sometimes that might mean literally frying fish if that’s what Grace is craving, or picking up her Starbucks, or picking her up from the airport. No time for jealous thoughts when her thoughts are on how to properly mix two different records, from two different artists; as well as keeping her job, since other assistants seem to want to climb up the ladder (just how many personal assistants does one famous person have?).

It’s a nice touch that it’s in such a subtle way Grace is realizing she’s not on the top of the charts. She doesn’t go all Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard or Diane Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway (or drink herself silly like Kris Kristofferson in the ridiculous version of A Star is Born). She simply shows a slight bit of vulnerability, as her smile ever so slowly fades when she’s in a meeting with the suits of her record label.

There’s a great cameo with Eddie Izzard as an old rock star. He’s always fun to see on screen.

Bill Pullman plays a DJ that does something I enjoyed the screenwriter including. When songs were played, they were always cover versions, with the DJ talking about the original artists. As a music lover who was obsessed with reading liner notes on my albums (and once did a radio show called “Under the Influence” which dealt with cover songs) — it was a nice touch, giving the songwriters credit they often don’t get.

As is usually the case when Kelvin Harrison Jr. is in a movie, he was my favorite thing in it. He has a touch of shyness and can also be charming. It’s nice to show he can play something other than the last two amazing (but very similar) characters he played on screen (in Luce and Waves from last year; find those movies and watch them).

And hearing him croon one of the best ballads of all time — You Send Me — will send your heart soaring. 

It was nice to see Johnson do something that got the bad taste out of my mouth (pun intended) from the Fifty Shades garbage.

Ice Cube, who I enjoyed in N.W.A., always annoys me on screen with his same angry character; but that worked here. He’s supposed to annoy you.

Zoe Chao, who was good in the underrated Downhill (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Will Ferrell) last year, has a small part here.

Along with some snappy original tunes, you’ll get to hear cover songs by Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Cher, Maxine Brown, The Staples Singers, and Al Green. And lots and lots of Sam Cooke talk, which is always a good thing.

I noticed in Cliff’s record collection, there was some Elmore James, Marvin Gaye, and The Beach Boys “Pet Sounds” (Spike Lee doesn’t even know that album, but rants about it being ahead of “Thriller” on the list of greatest albums in Rolling Stone). I think it would have been a fun Easter egg to have a Diana Ross album, with the name “Grace Davis” over it.

Look, some critics are going to knock this for the predictability, but come on. When you go see The Rolling Stones, it’s predictable as to what songs they’re going to play. Even when they encore, you knew they were going to come back out. And you knew they were going to play “Satisfaction.” So why can’t film critics sit back and just enjoy the beats of the story, even if they are a bit familiar?

This gets 3 stars out of 5.

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