Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Ross has entered the building. That would be Tracee Ellis Ross, of course — a consistently leading light on ABC’s long-running hit sitcom Black-ish, and a believable singing superstar in her fluid performance as fictional pop/R&B artist Grace Davis in The High Note (★★★☆☆). One could imagine that from the start of her award-winning acting career, Ross might have dreamed of and dreaded playing a role that would invite such exact comparisons to her supremely famous mother. Yet, she carries that legacy with apparent ease, offering a sharp, nuanced take on a legendary songstress who may be aging out of the pop spotlight.
While singer/songwriter Grace Davis still has her heart set on creating new music, her record company is ready to shuffle her act off to a lucrative Vegas residency performing her old hits. Think of Celine Dion, they tell her. The movie makes a strong but subtle point by setting Grace up against a roomful of young dude record execs to defend her continued relevance as a black female artist over forty. She doesn’t get much support in the room from her longtime manager Jack, played by Ice Cube, another accomplished actor with inside knowledge of the music business.
Cube wrote and rapped hip-hop’s most notoriously scathing diss of a music manager (“No Vaseline”), but he didn’t write this. His Jack Robertson, the only sort-of villain in the piece, doesn’t read as authentically as the Grace Davis character, and Cube, saddled with a bag of half-funny comebacks by Flora Greeson’s script, isn’t a great fit as the bad guy.
For one thing, the hyper-territorial Jack lets Grace’s hard-working, yet sneaky, personal assistant Maggie, well-played by Dakota Johnson, get away with more than what seems credible, even in a Hollywood fairytale. Maggie gets away with everything because The High Note primarily is her story of hustling a path from serving as Grace’s assistant to full-fledged music producer, bucking a sexist system and her own insecurities along the way. Her rise-of-the-assistant dramedy is pleasant but predictable.
Where the film rises above is in its depiction of Maggie as a true-blue music lover, driven by a passion to create emotional moments through songs like the soul classics that grace the soundtrack. Any script can talk the talk of rock ‘n’ roll trivia and obscure B-sides, but Late Night director Nisha Ganatra — working astutely in the vein of female bonding and ambition — grounds these characters in a world that sincerely appreciates the power of the right lyric or melody. Music-love underscores the film’s sexy romance between Maggie and an enigmatic R&B up-and-comer named David (Waves star Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) whom she angles to produce.
Thanks in part to the soundtrack’s actual producer, hitmaker Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, David’s throwback soul (and Harrison’s smooth vocals) have the ring of music you might hear from an indie artist in the age of Drake and The Weeknd. Similarly, Grace Davis — celebrated here on magazine covers framed alongside her gold and platinum records — dresses, acts, and sounds like the revered diva she’s intended to be, not an imitation of a legend, but a true original in her own right.
The High Note is available on VOD starting Friday, May 29. A 48-hour rental is $19.99. Visit www.WatchTheHighNote.com.
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