“The High Note” began life as a screenplay titled “Covers,” and at times the music-themed drama turns into a tribute to the power of a cover song performed by someone other than the person who originated it: Aretha Franklin with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Share Your Love,” the Staples Singers with the Band’s “The Weight,” P.P Arnold with Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” the Dixie Chicks with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” …
And the movie, which was directed by Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night”) and written by Flora Greeson, would like to take some familiar material and put a fresh spin on it, too. How well is succeeds depends on one’s tolerance level for understatement and for unabashed corn, both of which are found in the film, though obviously not at the same time.
Instead, it bounces around like a musical artist determined to show off the whole repertoire in the course of a few songs. “The High Note” is a character study, it’s a romance, it’s a dismissive look at the music business and a celebration of the power of music, it’s a movie that refuses to go down the path it’s been telegraphing and a movie that pulls out all the stops to get where you figured it would all along.
The Focus Features release, which would have landed in theaters if not for the coronavirus pushing it to a VOD release, is a little flat and kind of a mess, but a low-key and pleasant one that goes down agreeably enough for most of its running time.
Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, the personal assistant to Grace Davis, an imperious soul diva who’s got 11 Grammys and doesn’t seem quite old enough to have settled onto the nostalgia circuit, though that’s where she seems to be. “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross plays Grace in a way that suggests she’s paid some attention to her real-life mother, Diana Ross, though the character’s whiplash-inducing personality – she’s capricious and flighty, regal but needy – doesn’t always add up to what seems to be a real person.
Grace’s manager, Jack (Ice Cube in his goodnatured glowering mode), wants her to ride the gravy train and take a Vegas residency, but Maggie is sure that Grace should record new material – and what’s more, that she should do it with Maggie as her producer. After all, we know Maggie’s got great ears because she name-checks Aretha and Nina Simone, Carole King and Joni Mitchell, Elmore James and the Staples Singers – and we know she’s nobody’s pushover because when she has a meet-cute with aspiring singer David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at the Laurel Canyon Country Store, they end up arguing about the merits of “Hotel California.”
(Maggie votes nay, which I would happily accept if she didn’t try to seal the deal by comparing it to “Brown-Eyed Girl,” which is a damn great pop song.)
But David gets to her by singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” on a makeshift stage out behind the store, and seals the deal when she goes to a party at his house and finds out that while he’s suspiciously rich, his record collection includes Dinah Washington, “Pet Sounds” and Marvin Gaye (on vinyl, of course).
Johnson and Harrison are casual and understated, a winning couple whose low-energy courtship starts as a business relationship, albeit one that involves lots of lies. Maggie feels the need to tell him that she’s a successful producer who’s making time for him in her busy schedule, leaving out that that schedule consists of taking a big star’s clothes to the dry cleaner and making sure said star knows what city she’s in on tour.
As the lies pile up, you know the moment of reckoning is coming – and you know that Maggie won’t be able to juggle her world with Grace (fame, hysteria, big money deals) and her one with David (casual banter and late-night trips to the recording studio).
David might want to become a successful musician, but he’s hesitant; Grace might want to make new music, but she’s also drawn to cashing those big Vegas checks; and Maggie wants to become a producer rather than an assistant, though she’s too timid to really say that around Grace. And when she finally speaks up, Grace shoots down her grand plan for engineering an artistic resurgence: “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit, and only one of them was black! … You, little lady, are setting me up for a fail!”
Grace’s stat is not actually true: Six women have done it if you only allow solo recordings and nine if you count duets in which the woman received top billing – and that count doesn’t include bands like Jefferson Starship, with which Grace Slick did it three times. But maybe that’s nit-picking, because this is a vision of the music industry in which the big star is desperate to secure a high-powered opening act for her performance at a private record release party, and where the record company urges its artist to follow the career path that doesn’t include making, you know, records.
“The High Note” isn’t exactly believable as a depiction of the business, and the film isn’t much better at juggling the two storylines than Maggie herself is. But Johnson and Harrison are always genial and likeable, and the filmmakers are smart enough to shake things up by pulling the rug out from under Maggie at a key moment. Plus, Eddie Izzard has one scene as an Elton John-type rock star late in the film and nearly walks away with the movie without breaking a sweat or raising his voice, while Bill Pullman makes the most of a few quiet minutes as Maggie’s deejay dad.
The homestretch also gives Ross a priceless “apology” scene. It’s a key moment, and it almost lets you forgive the fact that they don’t just tie this story up in a bow, they assemble it into a veritable Gordian knot of happy interconnectedness. Almost.
“The High Note” is available on demand Friday, May 29.