Film Review - The High Note

Tracee Ellis Ross performs in a scene from “The High Note.”

“The High Note” is a light, refreshingly entertaining film that tackles more than meets the eye as Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a middle-aged singer/songwriter, attempts to find a way to stay relevant in the music world with the help (or hindrance) of her unappreciated and overworked personal assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson). Great chemistry, multiple storylines, and extraordinary original as well as familiar songs make this a film worth seeing.

Maggie isn’t just overworked, she is taken advantage of in her position as Grace’s assistant. Maggie’s constantly at her beck and call; scheduling events, her calendar, accompanying her to meetings and events, and rescuing her from situations at all times of the day and night. And Grace, a very talented and crowd-pleasing sensation, gives audiences one face but shows Maggie gets yet another — a much less pleasant and condescending one. While Grace thwarts Maggie’s dream of becoming a music producer, this doesn’t deter her from pushing forward as she still admires the woman whose music influenced her youth. And somehow Maggie can remain standing even after a verbal lashing by Jack (Ice Cube), Grace’s childhood friend and manager. She’s tough, but as the story snowballs, how much can she really take?

Even though Maggie’s life isn’t her own, she still finds a sliver of time for a new boy who happens to be a talented young singer. Maggie sees an opportunity not for love but for business. Perhaps she can make a star out of this new talent. Venturing into unknown territory, fooling David, others, and most importantly, herself, Maggie finds that life isn’t quite as cut and dry and she had hoped.

The story in itself is rather predictable, but the underlying elements elevate the story and its meaning. The individual characters’ stories are explored finding both Maggie and Grace at a crossroads in their lives and making decisions that create new paths sometimes filled with potholes and other times smooth as glass. Both women have a unique backstory which influences their new decisions, but it is Grace who confronts the world’s agism, sexism, and racism; characteristics and actions she has dealt with her entire life. While Grace’s obstacles appear like mountains in her path, her wisdom and Maggie’s youthful hopefulness seep into the story, influencing how they both react.

Seeing life and its opportunities from these two very different perspectives is quite refreshing. Grace realizes how quickly life passes, but she’s not ready to throw in the towel and do a “residency” in Vegas. How many of us “over 40” still feel like we have new chapters of our own books to write or even new books altogether to create? On the other end of the spectrum, Maggie’s youth, optimistic innocence makes her much less jaded, but when the rug is pulled out from her, can she bounce back? Of course, there is also a love story between she and David as well as attention to Maggie’s backstory with all of it getting wrapped up in a package with a nice little bow, but not before you’re invested in all of these characters, with their flaws and poor decisions, and you are endeared to each of them.

Johnson’s interactions with each of the actors is crucial to make it believable and she does. She portrays Maggie as meek and sweet, but then exudes courage as she stands up to Jack, and then pivots back to being vulnerable with David as their relationship grows. Ross brings a certain edge and authenticity to her portrayal of a star who no longer is shooting and does not want to fade. Her voice and performance abilities command the stage, and I loved the songs and was thankful that there were plenty to hear throughout the film. Harrison Jr.’s performance finds just the right notes as well, demonstrating that he is a true actor, taking on a lighter role yet soothing our souls with his glorious voice. And what can I say about Ice Cube? He’s a star. He rocks every scene he’s in as we wait with bated breath to hear his insightful onslaught of verbal descriptions and accusations. Not only is he a star, he is our comedic element that shines as bright as a Venus in the sky recently.

Music is at the forefront of the film and the old tunes of bygone eras are romanticized and recalled with historical significance. The original songs are equally catchy and memorable, sure to make the top of the billboard charts in the coming months. “The High Note” is in perfect harmony as it tells a contemporary story complete with socially relevant issues, but never pushes too hard in this direction so that we can still laugh. With obvious chemistry among these actors immediately evident, we easily connect with each of them in some way. On the surface, this is a fun-filled movie with great music and a predictable storyline, but it is so much more as it tackles ageism, racism, and gender issues with an incredible soundtrack!

Reel Talk rating: 3½ Stars

Pamela Powell is a film critic located in Bourbonnais and a member of the CFCA, the CCA, and is a Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Writing reviews for 10 years, Pamela also can be found on WCIA TV in Champaign. She can be contacted at pampowell5@att.net

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