‘The High Note’: Tracee Ellis Ross and a supremely entertaining story
The ‘black-ish’ star powerfully belts out six new songs while playing a beloved pop singer determined to stay cool.
Weeks after I saw “The High Note,” the sounds and words of the anthem “Love Myself” were still playing in my head.
I don’t really care, I don’t want to keep my head down
Got nothing to share, maybe I shut my phone down
I don’t really care if everybody likes me
I just want to love myself, love myself, love myself …
It’s not quite “Shallows,” but it’s an original song for a movie about the music business, and it sounds like an actual hit. “Love Myself” is a traditional power pop ballad — something Whitney Houston or Kelly Clarkson might have had in their catalogs — and it’s sung by Tracee Ellis Ross (“black-ish”) who plays a globally famous and fictional diva not totally unlike her mother, Diana Ross.
Focus Features presents a film directed by Nisha Ganatra and written by Flora Greeson. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language, and suggestive references). Running time: 107 minutes. Available on demand starting Friday.
Directed with a breezy, fast-paced style by Nisha Ganatra and featuring a strong script by Flora Greeson, “The High Note” is an old-fashioned Hollywood story about dreamers and stars, the trappings of fame and how the overwhelming, exhilarating, all-encompassing feeling of falling in love can be captured in a perfect four-minute song. It feels as if about 50% of this movie accurately captures the music business, while the other half is a fluffy confection of pure fantasy — and that’s a formula that works perfectly in an escapist film such as this.
Ross plays the beloved international superstar Grace Davis, who hasn’t had a hit in more than a decade but can still pack arenas by giving the fans what they want: lavishly produced performances of all those No, 1 singles from back in the day. Grace travels by private jet, lives in a gigantic, tastefully appointed mansion and has her needs catered to by her business manager of more than 20 years, Jack (Ice Cube); her household manager, Gail, (June Diane Raphael), and her personal assistant, Maggie, who is played by Dakota Johnson in maybe her best and certainly most lovable performance.
Grace is at that “encore” stage of her career where the Colosseum at Caesars Palace is offering her a long-term residency, a la Elton John and Celine Dion and Sting. She’ll be paid a boatload of money and she can finally stop the endless cycle of touring from city to city, from country to country. Let the fans come to her.
Maggie senses hesitation on Grace’s part. She knows Grace has been working on some new songs and would like to release some fresh, original material and not spend the rest of her days belting out the same hits every night — but the surly, cynical Jack gives Maggie a reality check: “Don’t nobody give a s--- about new material.” Why, it’s almost as if Jack the business manager is … all business.
Maggie’s world is all about fetching water and green drinks for Grace and helping Grace sort through her enormous wardrobe when the boss says, “I wanna go through my closet and donate things that aren’t sparking joy or whatever,” but after three years as a personal assistant, Maggie is burning with ambition to break free and pursue her dream of becoming a music producer. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of blues, rock, pop and soul and a natural ear. In fact, she’s been secretly tinkering with the mix on Grace’s upcoming live album.
In one of the cutest Meet Cutes in recent memory, Maggie crosses life paths with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s David in a store as Phantom Planet’s “California” is playing on the sound system. She’s not impressed that he knows this song. Everybody knows this song, it’s from “The O.C.” But they quickly get into a game of rattling off some of the best and most famous “California” songs, from Joni Mitchell’s “California” to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (Maggie’s not a fan) to Zeppelin’s “Going Back to California” to The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin.’ ” Hey, this handsome and charming and sweet David guy knows his music. In fact, it turns out he’s an aspiring musician who could use a producer. This is the most convenient store that’s not a convenience store ever. It’s like they have Plot Developments in Aisle Three
“The High Note” keeps multiple storylines going, from Grace fearing she’s becoming the cliché of the star who’s adored by everyone but is loved by no one and is yesterday’s news, to Maggie and David becoming partners in more ways than one, to Maggie getting her big break and seriously screwing up, to Diplo playing an egotistical producer who remixes Grace’s music and squeezes the heart and soul out of it, to the rather sudden but quite welcome appearance of Bill Pullman as Maggie’s aging hipster dad, one of those middle-aged DJ’s who would rather jump off a cliff than play anything but vinyl. There’s a late twist straight out of a daytime soap opera, but by then we’re willing to forgive the schmaltzy dramatics because everyone is so darn likable and we’re rooting for the happy ending we know is coming, as sure as the chorus of a favorite pop song.
This is a real acting/singing tour de force from Tracee Ellis Ross, who belts out six original tunes in a distinctive, powerful voice, in a movie that’s a thoroughly entertaining, sunnier take on “A Star Is Born.”