The entertainment industry is not kind to women over 40.
Pop culture is conditioned to crave the newest and, often, youngest thing. Ariana Grande has the number one song on the Billboard charts right now. She’s 26 and has already been around forever.
Often movies, including the recent biopic Judy, love to tell the story of an aging star clinging to her (it’s almost always her) last grasps of fame. Oh, let’s all look on her with pity. How sad that she cannot accept her fate and fade gracefully away.
Delightfully, The High Note is not that kind of movie. Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a megastar. Yes she’s over 40 with no recent hits. But she still performs to sold-out crowds and is coming off her extremely successful tenth world tour. She has 11 Grammys (as she’s fond of reminding people), and her songs remain infectious crowd pleasers. Caesars Palace wants to lock her in for a decade-long residency. The movie doesn’t necessarily view a Vegas residency as selling out, but it’s definitely not a desired outcome (sorry Mariah, Celine, et. al.)
Grace suffers through label executives who say things like, “My mom is more excited about me working with you than when I graduated Stanford” and a clueless producer (played to perfection by Diplo in an inspired cameo) whose remix version of her song uses “cross synthesis” and takes out the back-up singers because “they’re kind of old sounding.” Grace wants more for her career than to continue putting out albums and tours based on her past work. But she is also keenly aware that only five women over the age of 40 have ever had a number one hit.
Enter Grace’s assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who gets Grace’s dry cleaning, picks up her smoothies and breaks in her uncomfortable shoes. Maggie, or Margaret as Grace insists on calling her, is a a walking encyclopedia of music trivia, be it songs about California or who sang the original version of “The First Cut is the Deepest.” But what Maggie really wants to do is produce and she’s secretly produced an alternate version of Grace’s live album. A life-long fan of Grace’s, she believes in her music. What could possibly go wrong when you go behind your boss’s back? (As you might guess, plenty.)
There’s a certain symmetry to the casting even if it’s pretty much unconnected to the characters. Both Ross and Johnson have famous parents even as they have both established themselves in careers of their own. Ross, the real-life daughter of Diana Ross and the star of the long-running comedy black-ish, has the diva attitude down, and, not surprising given her lineage, her voice is phenomenal. Grace’s songs are peppered throughout the movie, and some—like “Bad Girl” and “Stop for a Minute”—feel like they could be long-running hits that fans know by heart. The montage scenes of Grace in concert may even remind viewers of Ross’s famous mother and bring the cliché “life imitating art” full circle. But for most of the movie, Grace remains more a collection of character traits than a fully realized character. Only at the end of the movie do we see the true Grace and realize it might have been nice to see her all along.
Johnson, the daughter of actors Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, gets the more fully developed character. Soft spoken and kind, Maggie is not how a driven career woman is typically portrayed. Maggie wants to produce music because she loves it. Her desire to bring out the best in her artist may seem like fan fiction to many in the music industry, but like most fantasies, it’s nice to imagine it as the truth.
Ross and Johnson are joined by a strong supporting cast, including June Diane Raphael as Grace’s other assistant, Gail (the one that watches over the house). Gail relishes all the trappings Grace’s fame provides and gets some of the best lines. “It goes from Grace to Getty images to Gail,” she says of Grace’s Louboutin shoes. And Grace’s long-time and financially focused manager, Ice Cube makes the most with his scenes whether it’s talking to a piece of cake or trying to impresses some ridiculous remix producer. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is charming as David, the aspiring singer with powerhouse vocals and potential love interest that Maggie meets while shopping for organic fruit. (This is LA after all.)
Happily, Maggie and David’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to the main thrust of the story—the friendship and working rapport between Grace and Maggie. Professional fulfillment for both Grace and Maggie is the crux of the conflict. This in itself is novel and a welcome change-how often does a movie just allow a woman’s career aspirations to take center stage without somehow judging the very premise as an complication or obstacle to something else?
Light, fluffy and sugarcoated, The High Note feels like a throwback to another time when studios produced movies with the sole purpose of putting a little spring in viewer’s step. That we would all leave the movie theater (or, as is the case now, the virtual movie theater) smiling. That also makes it seem a little more like a Hallmark movie and less like a major theatrical release, but it still comes close to dependably hitting the right note, even if it doesn’t quite end on the high.
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Writer: Flora Greeson
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael, Zoe Chao, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman, Diplo
Release Date: May 29 (VOD)