Moving story goes off rails
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