Mov­ing story goes off rails

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Like the PA so ef­fec­tively por­trayed by Ju­lia Garner in Kitty Green’s The As­sis­tant, Mag­gie (Dakota John­son) in The High Note, works be­hind the scenes in a glam­orous part of the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try and hopes that one day she can achieve her am­bi­tion to be­come a pro­ducer. Mag­gie is em­ployed in the world of mu­sic, not cin­ema, and she is an ex­ceed­ingly com­pe­tent young woman. She has lived with mu­sic all her life, thanks to the in­flu­ence of her fa­ther (Bill Pull­man), who has a gig as DJ at a Catalina Is­land ra­dio sta­tion. As a re­sult of this tu­ition, she knows her record­ing artists, and she speaks with ab­so­lute con­fi­dence on the merit of one per­former over an­other — for ex­am­ple, she’s not a fan of The Ea­gles, and is dis­dain­ful of their hit song Ho­tel Cal­i­for­nia. Her favourite song­writer is Ca­role King.

Mag­gie works as PA for a gi­ant of the mu­sic world, Grace Davis (Tracee El­lis Ross), a pop­u­lar and well-es­tab­lished singer-song­writer and she ac­com­pa­nies her, and her man­ager, Jack (Ice Cube), on a pri­vate jet, when they travel on tour. Mag­gie is at her em­ployer’s beck and call day and night, shop­ping for her, sec­ondguess­ing her needs, even wear­ing her new shoes to break them in; and she en­dures it, and the jibes of the in­vari­ably dis­dain­ful Jack, be­cause she hopes that one day she’ll be able to pro­duce an al­bum her­self. With this in mind she tries to en­cour­age Grace to con­sider writ­ing some new ma­te­rial in­stead of con­stantly per­form­ing the same old, tried and true, hits — great songs beloved by her fans, but noth­ing new. Jack, on the other hand, wants Grace to stay in fa­mil­iar ter­ri­tory: “That’s how I pay my mort­gage,” he coun­sels Mag­gie when she makes yet an­other plea for new ma­te­rial.

Then one day, while shop­ping in a su­per­mar­ket, Mag­gie meets David (Kelvin Har­ri­son Jr, the fine young ac­tor from Waves) and they be­come friendly while ex­chang­ing mu­si­cal likes and dis­likes. When she dis­cov­ers that David is a singer-song­writer, Mag­gie de­cides to de­vote her spare time to help­ing him record an al­bum.

Direc­tor Nisha Gana­tra is very suc­cess­ful at set­ting this story of youth­ful am­bi­tion in a to­tally re­al­is­tic set­ting. This, you feel, is what the mu­sic in­dus­try in Los An­ge­les is re­ally like — sev­eral scenes take place in the iconic Capi­tol Records build­ing. And we’re re­minded that, in the history of pop­u­lar mu­sic, only five women over the age of 40 have had a No 1 hit, and only one of them was black.

Ross, whose eclec­tic ca­reer has en­com­passed suc­cess as a singer — fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of her il­lus­tri­ous mother, Diana Ross — and also ac­tor, model, fash­ion ed­i­tor and TV host, is ex­cel­lent as Grace, the su­per­star on the wane. It’s a ter­rific role and a fine per­for­mance, but she’s al­most over­shad­owed by John­son, who is touch­ingly good as the ob­sessed Mag­gie, a young woman dis­dain­ful of the record com­pany bosses she con­sid­ers to be “pre­ten­tious sparkling wa­ter blowhards”. The film also ben­e­fits from a ter­rific cameo ap­pear­ance from Ed­die Iz­zard as an opin­ion­ated high-flyer.

Un­for­tu­nately, Flora Gree­son’s screen­play goes off the rails in the later stages when it in­tro­duces the kind of co­in­ci­dence even Charles Dick­ens might have baulked at. On the one hand this makes for a feel-good con­clu­sion to the drama that many will find ir­re­sistible; but it also robs the film of that au­then­tic­ity that made the first part of the film so suc­cess­ful. The insider ref­er­ences will mean more to those steeped in the cul­ture of pop­u­lar mu­sic, but even a novice like me could ap­pre­ci­ate the jokes about The Ea­gles and Sam Cooke.

Tracee El­lis Ross as Grace Davis in The High Note

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