The High Note review: Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson are off-key

The High Note -- Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features
The High Note -- Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features /

Despite having two formidable leads in Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson, The High Note struggles to stay interesting or make its voice heard.

Considering she’s the daughter of legendary songstress Diana Ross, we’ve wondered for years whether or not Tracee Ellis Ross got any of the musically talented genes her mother has. With the release of The High Note, we finally have our answer — and it’s… sort of?

Starring Ross as fictional pop diva Grace Davis and Dakota Johson as her personal assistant Maggie, The High Note follows both women as they struggle to make headway in their careers. Davis longs to release a new album when industry execs are attempting to corral her into a Vegas residency, and Maggie is looking for a chance to prove her mettle as a music producer despite being constantly sidelined in her role as an assistant.

The film functions as part romance, part comedy, and part musical — three elements that blend fairly well, but all of which could’ve been used in a much more interconnected way. Of the three, the musical aspect is the most successful. The film’s album is composed of a number of songs — some sung by Ross herself, a gaggle by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who plays Maggie’s love interest and up-and-coming musician David), and the rest dotted by Motown classics and more modern tracks.

It’s a strong album, and as such, provides an enjoyable, groovy soundtrack for the film, so much so that I’m not ashamed to admit I’m rocking out to Ross’s cover of “Bad Girl” as I write this review. However, despite the significant role that Davis and her music career play in the soundtrack, she takes a backseat to the story of Maggie, which is an odd move that makes the film feel like it fumbled it’s biggest opportunity.

As it currently stands, the structure and plot of The High Note make it seem like a sort of Devil Wears Prada rip-off, with a young ingénue in the industry hoping to learn from a sharp-tongued, seasoned professional. But, unfortunately for the film (and the audience), it picked the wrong character to make the protagonist.

By focusing the story around Maggie and using Grace mainly as a device with which to foil and further grow her character, the film loses the opportunity to tell a truly interesting story about the struggles of being a black woman over 40 in the music industry. As Grace points out near the end of the film, only one black woman over 40 has ever had a No. 1 single, and the ageism and racism in the industry is a subject that would make for an excellent film — one which Ross would make a fantastic lead for.

However, The High Note doesn’t delve into this idea other than through surface-level comments, and instead opts to focus the narrative on Johnson’s character, Maggie, the assistant who longs to be a music producer and uses her connections as Davis’s personal assistant to secretly engineer her own shot at success. During all of this conniving, she meets and falls for David, a young musician who we later find out (in a wholly unnecessary yet predictable twist) is Grace’s son.

Maggie’s story is tired and overdone. We’ve heard it a million times, and although we will always adore Dakota Johnson, in order for Maggie’s plot to have been worth telling, it would’ve fit much better as the basis for a TV series. Smushed into film form, such a frequently explored topic as “trying to make it from an assistant to a star in the music industry” just doesn’t work — especially considering the stakes are so low that the movie constantly feels like it’s dragging.

The lack of urgency in Maggie’s plot leads to us tapping our feet until Grace is back onscreen. Her story is so much stronger for the film, not to mention more entertaining — we’d much rather watch Ross belt out a classic onstage or strut into meetings wearing fabulous outfits than watch Johnson bite her lip and mope about how tough it is being so talented yet underappreciated.

However, despite the film’s odd decision to make the story about Maggie rather than Grace (or, at least, to not even make their screentime more evenly split), The High Note is still enjoyable as a vehicle for some catchy songs and iconic Tracee Ellis Ross looks.

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Did you see The High Note? What’s your favorite Diana Ross song? Sound off in the comments below.