thu 06/08/2020

The High Note review - Tracee Ellis Ross shines in so-so music dramedy | reviews, news & interviews

The High Note review - Tracee Ellis Ross shines in so-so music dramedy

The High Note review - Tracee Ellis Ross shines in so-so music dramedy

This musical lacks originality but Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson save the day

Nisha Ganatra’s musical dramedy, penned by first time screenwriter Flora Greeson, isn’t going to win any prizes for originality and is almost unforgivably corny. But the feel-good vibes and winning combination of Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson are still likely to win audiences over.

Ross has been acting since the mid-90s, but has experienced a low-key renaissance in recent years, partly due to her role in Kenya Barris’ award-winning show, Black-ish. Of course, being the daughter of Motown legend Diana Ross and top music exec Robert Ellis Silberstein, she knows the music biz through and through. It made her the natural choice to play the character of Grace Davis, a soul diva living off former glories who tours the world at sold-out stadiums, but hasn’t produced a new hit in over a decade. Her manager Jack (Ice-Cube), wants to cement her status at a Celine Dion-esque residency in Las Vegas, but you can tell Davis sees this is the death knell of her career. She’s also aware that, at over forty years old and black, there are few in the music industry who have survived as long as she has. Tracee Ellis Ross is Grace DavisJohnson meanwhile is Davis’ beleaguered personal assistant Maggie, who dutifully fulfils any task however menial or bizarre, like remembering to put out the ‘sexicology oil’ for when Michael B. Jordan is due to visit (lots of names are dropped in this film but few stars appear, although there’s a brief, self-mocking appearance from Diplo). Maggie doesn’t want to be an assistant all her life, her real desire is to be a music producer. She’s sweet, wholesome, a little naive, but dedicated to her dream. 

At first it seems this gentle dramedy has the right ingredients to deliver a Bechdel test-worthy story about talented, career-driven women fulfilling their dreams. But then Maggie goes to a hipster grocery story and meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr, who was recently seen in Trey Edward Shults’ excellent Waves), and the tone morphs into very familiar romcom territory. 

Ganatra tries to correct the course, but not enough. The film is playfully self-aware that this story is about privileged people with privileged problems, but it doesn’t totally gel. It sits in the same range as Begin Again or Music and Lyrics as a slightly smug, but enjoyable cheese-fest.

The real high note is Ross, who is clearly having a riot as the entitled diva. She brings to mind Tina Turner and Madonna in terms of stage presence, but you can equally believe she’d demand a thousand brown M&Ms and a photo of Princess Di in her dressing room before every performance. She also gets a chance to finally demonstrate her singing talents. No doubt a daunting prospect when you grew up to the sound of your mother belting out "Chain Reaction" and "Baby Love". 

@JosephDAWalsh

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