Written by: Joe Lollo
The diva is an interesting way to study the nature and ambition of women – and especially women who want to be famous – in the public sphere. The High Note, directed by Nisha Gantara, the mastermind behind the Amazon Prime series TransParent and 2019’s underrated gem Late Night, seeks to both complicate this archetype and reveal her humanity, but it doesn’t quite manage to see beyond the surface level.
In this case, the diva is Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a successful and aging R&B singer decades into her career. She worries her career is growing stagnant, as her manager Jack (Ice Cube) pushes her to do a Las Vegas residency. On the other hand, her personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) dreams of becoming a music producer – something she was only able to imagine after working for Grace, who she idolizes. Maggie keeps overstepping her place and supporting Grace a little too much, but it’s all in good faith – something Grace fails to see at first. During her rare downtime from Grace’s constant demands, Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a talented singer, and becomes involved in his career – juggling her dream come true and her day job, all the while finding a new relationship.
Narratively, this is confusing but not awful – the two separate narratives would have worked better if they were connected even just a little bit more, but it works fine even if they are unconnected for a while. The film’s script and humor save this problematic narrative style from making a disaster, and it is nice to see both narratives get equal importance in films like these. The performances are passable, but nobody really shines that much. As Diana Ross’s daughter, Tracee Ellis Ross gives an interesting dimension to her portrayal of an R&B diva, but she doesn’t do much with the role.
Dakota Johnson has definitely improved in her acting ability compared to the Fifty Shades trilogy, yet neither really breaks the mold or does anything daring with their character. Not even Ice Cube, the guy who started the whole phase of “rappers who can act” and has proven he can be great with the right director, does much with his character – it is limited and his humor has more misses than hits. The cast all just seems to do exactly what you would expect them to do during the entirety of this film. The music, however, is very good – I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to listen to this soundtrack on a daily basis.
Aside from the confusing double narrative, this film has another downside – it attempts to scrutinize its own industry, but it is rendered timidly. It aims to be nostalgic and funny, but also a nod to the limitations faced by famous people of color, like Grace, in the public sphere. The result is a story that feels somewhat uninspired because it lacks the context of today’s music industry, and refuses to thoughtfully consider the way race and gender can and will shape careers. It is too afraid to look at these topics, and instead sprinkles in humor to keep the harsh realities from creeping in. It seems to just be a Hollywood fairytale.
However, beyond that superficial level – the story is a great one, and this film is excellent because of this additional dimension. It’s about female empowerment, and capturing it through creativity and artistic expression. The film is brimming with montages of Grace and Maggie alike doing just that – creating in studios, and finding ways to employ and maintain their very different types of femininity through artistic integrity. Grace wants to save her career but also come off as a genuine human, and Maggie wants to let the world know she is talented too but is afraid of doing so because she is meek.
While Grace seems to rebuke Maggie at first, she really does believe in her, and Maggie’s “undying” support towards Grace is justified as Grace was her first chance at show biz. From a feminist standpoint, then, this film is fantastic – it’s all about sisterhood, and how connection is important in public and private spheres. Even if there could be a stronger statement to make about the music industry and the intersectionality between race and gender in it, the empowerment story makes up for all the film’s flaws.
Despite carrying a fairly generic tune on a surface level, The High Note comes together harmoniously enough when you view it above the surface level, as a film about feminists connected by their passion for music. And that makes it a jam in my songbook.