In Australia, Winter is coming to an end, and as the warm seasons roll on, so do the refreshing comforts of the Summer months. Cold beers taste better on a searing hot day, those summer songs sound better too, and comfort films in a cool air conditioned cinema are all the more uplifting for the cheer they bring to our day.
The arrival of director Nisha Ganatra’s absolutely joyous film The High Note at this change of the year feels wonderfully fortuitous and glorious. As this rapturously brilliant film came to a close, I couldn’t escape the feeling that good things were coming on the horizon. For me, this was akin to cracking open a cold Gage Roads Single Fin beer while the opening strains of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street play as I watch the golden sunset over the Indian ocean from an iconic Freo beach. Downright comfortable, calming viewing.
Here, Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, assistant to Tracee Ellis Ross’ music icon Grace Davis. In her middle age, with only a decades spanning discography to keep her relevant and no new music on the horizon, Davis is at a difficult point in her career. Behind the scenes, and with Grace unaware, Maggie has been producing Davis’ new live album, hoping to remind listeners (and possibly Grace) of the grandeur and supreme talent that icon Grace Davis has.
Davis’ manager, Jack Robertson (an eagerly obnoxious Ice Cube), uses his brute masculine force to cajole Grace into career moves that she isn’t entirely keen on, with the prospect of moving to Las Vegas to follow in the steps of Celine Dion who performed hundreds of shows at Caesars Palace for years, on the horizon. An unsettling board room scene midway through the film has Davis surrounded by young men, some of whom quip about how their mum’s would love the fact they’re working with Grace Davis, and all of who have no idea what is best for Grace’s career. She wants to write new music, and the stoic blank faces of the businessmen want the option that will line their pockets with more and more greenbacks.
If all of this sounds too clinical or dramatic, then rest assured, the utterly joyous performances from Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross elevate the film immensely, with the entire cast making Flora Greeson’s exceptional script a joy to absorb. Dakota Johnson once again reminds us of the powerful talent that she is, with every single moment she’s on screen lighting up the room with carefree energy. For those that appreciated Johnson’s cheerful comedic turn in How to Be Single, you’ll be greatly rewarded with her role here.
While The High Note follows Maggie as the main character, this film well and truly belongs to Tracee Ellis Ross who, in any year, should comfortably get an Academy Award nomination for her role here. Channelling the stature and power of iconic Black artists like Whitney Houston, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, and (naturally) mother Diana Ross, Tracee Ellis Ross struts through every scene with a knowing importance and confidence that only comes with years of experience.
The organic relationship that is forged between Maggie and Grace is the emotional core of why The High Note works so masterfully. Maggie’s eagerness to showcase and support her idols music is tangible, a point that’s only amplified by the fact that the songs in The High Note are downright brilliant. They are, as the young folks might say, absolute bangers.
With tracks produced by Grammy-winner Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, The High Note becomes a bonafide classic music film. Tracee Ellis Ross carries on her mother’s legacy perfectly, and has a vocal talent that’ll make you wonder why we haven’t heard her sing earlier. I cannot wait to make this soundtrack my personal Summer soundtrack, with songs like Bad Girl being inescapable earworms.
Along Maggie’s journey, she meets David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young singer who has an up and coming R&B talent that she hopes to produce to success. The chemistry that Johnson and Harrison Jr. have with each other will have you turning up that air conditioner to bring down that heat. As the romantic core of the film, and given the working relationship the two have with each other, there’s a perfect blend of wanting them to get together, while equally wanting them to work alongside each other so Cliff can succeed as an artist.
And just like Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. is not only an exceptional actor, he also has the vocal talent to leave you in awe. David Cliff’s role in the narrative never feels artificial, with it feeding organically into Maggie’s artist-focused career, and Grace’s revitalisation as an important artist.
In fact, all of the side characters narratives feel part of the whole. From June Diane Raphael’s cheeky opportunistic house worker, Gail, to Ice Cube’s frustratingly misogynistic atypical bloke manager, Jack Robertson, to Zoë Chao’s doctor friend, Katie, each character works as a way of accentuating the world of success that Grace Davis lives within.
There is little artifice to The High Note, with it mirroring real world music industry machinations closely. In a powerful moment, Grace talks about the difficulty of being a Black music artist in her forties, and how there have only been five women to have a number one hit after turning forty, with only one being a Black woman. This truth rings throughout the whole of The High Note, and while it could play like a dramatic cautionary tale, it instead helps inform the comedy and charm of the film, making it feel more grounded than one may otherwise expect. The way Nisha Ganatra and Flora Greeson subvert expectations in the final act helps keep this one feeling new and refreshing.
And that’s the main thing about The High Note: for all its familiarities, there is so much unexpected joy and refreshing brilliance within the film that I can’t help but sing its praises proudly. I love this film completely, and couldn’t help but feel immediately revitalised after watching it, like I’d stepped into an unexpected sun shower on a hot day. The High Note is as pure a comfort watch as you can get, one that’s driven by top notch performances and chart-topping like music. This is a genuinely great film.
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Writer: Flora Greeson