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In ‘The High Note,’ better call her Miss Davis

Dakota Johnson (left) and Tracee Ellis Ross in "The High Note."Glen Wilson/Focus Features via AP

“The High Note” is a glossy, enjoyable, not at all believable show business fairy tale starring two show business princesses: Tracee Ellis Ross (daughter of Diana Ross) and Dakota Johnson (daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson). Both actresses have long since asserted their respective talents and independence, but the new movie — originally scheduled for a theatrical release and now coming to selected on-demand platforms and cable systems — oddly benefits from their connectedness to the Hollywood inside track. These two have grown up at the feast. They know who gets served and who doesn’t and why.

It’s especially interesting in the case of Ross, who here plays a legendary soul-pop diva struggling to remain relevant in a hip-hop world. (Ahem.) The character of Grace Davis is a nice change-up from Rainbow Johnson, the level-headed matriarch Ross plays on the hit show “Black-ish.” Grace is demanding, mercurial, and comically vain, but she’s not a monster. She has a sense of humor to go with her insecurities and a bitter awareness of how precarious a black woman’s position is at the top of the pile. One of the plot threads of Flora Greeson’s script concerns Grace’s attempts to get back to who she was despite everyone in her orbit wanting her to play it safe.

Everyone except Maggie Sherwoode (Johnson), Grace’s much-abused personal assistant and — shhh — a would-be pop producer with a working knowledge of every soul music B-side from 1963 on. While Grace’s longtime manager, Jack (Ice Cube), and a conference room full of toothy young label executives all steer her toward another greatest-hits album and a lucrative Vegas residency, Maggie knows the star needs new material and the right retro-but-fresh sound to go with it. Grace would rather Maggie stick to sorting through her old gowns for charity donations.


Ice Cube in "The High Note." Glen Wilson/Focus Features

Greeson writes dialogue that’s shallow but clever; and under Nisha Ganatra’s direction, “The High Note” tells a brisk, improbable tale. The elbow jabs at the pampered pop star life are sharp: June Diane Raphael is amusing as a ditzy, entitled housekeeper who lives on Grace’s cast-off swag, and Ross plays her role with the inside knowledge of how difficult a woman like Grace can be. (Ahem.) Zoe Chao does a lot with the threadbare part of Maggie’s wacky roommate, and Eddie Izzard, as some kind of music industry macher, raises the quality bar for the entire movie in one daft scene alone.


Ross sings Grace’s numbers well, and so does Kelvin Harrison Jr. as David, a handsome and flirty young performer who Maggie takes on as a test client only to, well, you know. If you saw last year’s “Luce” or “Waves,” you know Harrison is a major up-and-coming acting talent; that he has a voice and can play well in fluff like “The High Note” is further proof of versatility. (He almost — almost — gets you to buy a ninth-inning plot twist that any reasonably sensate viewer will have figured out by the seventh-inning stretch.)

Tracee Ellis Ross in "The High Note."Glen Wilson/Focus Features via AP

The film’s one weak link, I’m sad to say, is Johnson, who has a pliant, soft-focus presence that works in some movies (“Suspiria,” "A Bigger Splash,” I guess the “50 Shades” series) but that does her no favors when playing a hardheaded genius of the mixing board. “The High Note” feels like the inside scoop in many of its details while remaining curiously naive as a music-business Cinderella story, and if you want to take issue with a petite 20-something white woman schooling her successful Black employers on the true meaning of soul music, please — be my guest. Aside from one righteously exhausted monologue from Grace, race never raises its head in “The High Note,” even when it needs to. That’s how you know it’s a fairy tale.




Directed by Nisha Ganatra. Written by Flora Greeson. Starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube. Available for rental on cable systems and streaming-video platforms. 113 minutes. PG-13 (strong language and suggestive references).