The High Note, review: Dakota Johnson's balmy escape to the golden world of showbiz

Tim Robey
Dakota Johnson plays Maggie, a personal assistant trying to make it as a producer

Dir: Nisha Ganatra; Starring: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison, Jr, Ice Cube, BIll Pullman, Zoë Chao, June Diane Raphael. 12 cert, 114 min.

The High Note exists on a planet blissfully untroubled by thoughts of contagion, or indeed any problems that aren’t strictly first-world. This makes it quite comforting. The existential crises of music industry hotshots in Los Angeles might struggle to mark it out, to say the least, as a film for our moment. At the same time, it’s a refuge – a balmy vision of cloudless blue skies, rooftop martinis on someone else’s tab, and a few soulful jamming sessions in a recording studio no one’s using. You could disappear into Nisha Ganatra’s film for a couple of hours and easily forget where the evening went.

The director’s last comedy-drama on a showbiz theme was Late Night, which was pushy and hectoring with its writers’ room tussles and oversold zingers. This relaxes. Dakota Johnson plays a flailing personal assistant – a red-flag cliché on the romcom scene, sure – but dials down the ditziness in that matter-of-fact way she’s good at nailing. Instead of force-feeding us would-be edgy jokes this time, Ganatra concentrates on singing, and has a cast that really help out in that department.

In the role of Johnson’s boss, Tracee Ellis Ross – daughter of Diana – gets to play a coasting diva, Grace Davis, who’s neither over-the-hill nor the hot new thing. In fact, she’s a megastar, all throaty laughs and chicken cravings, with the loyal following of a Cher and a string of number one records some way behind her. 

Everyone, including Ice Cube’s fat-cat manager, is nudging her into a cosy, settled greatest-hits phase – they’re keen on a Las Vegas residency, to net some of that Sinatra moolah. Everyone, that is, but Johnson’s Maggie, and also Grace herself, who has new material she’s itching to try out, if the jaded A&R guys would only resurrect their enthusiasm.

Meanwhile, Maggie – who’s been mixing Grace’s vocals on the sly – has been posing as a producer around town, when her real job is dogsbody, fetcher of smoothies, and so on. Because this is the sort of film it is, she has a meet-cute in a hipster grocery with a handsome singer-songwriter called David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr), and takes him on as both a business project and a boyfriend into the bargain. 

Flora Greeson’s script hits a snag here – why wouldn’t Maggie just admit who her real employer is? We’re meant to think she’s stringing David along, ashamed to admit she’s a nobody, but the film stretches credulity the more we get wind of the third-act twist it’s hiding.

Honestly, though, if you’ve ever met a romantic comedy, or any studio-backed take on the music biz à la A Star is Born, you’ll know what loopholes to expect. The High Note dives into pure formula – they might have called it Saving Grace – and promises, at first, a warmer delve into vinyl-loving, Sam-Cooke-worshipping music nostalgia than its juggled plot-lines can sustain from halfway on. 

 Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross, plays a musical diva - Glen Wilson

There’s a dangerously ripe cameo for Eddie Izzard as some louche singing legend who sticks on headphones in his favourite sauna, zones out to one of David’s tracks, and agrees on the spot, with rueful meditations on where-did-the-years-all-go, to duck out of opening for Grace at her album launch: a great deal of absurd work for a single scene to do.

But you know what? This thing is sweetly affable even at its silliest. And in Harrison, it has a ray of sunshine in half its scenes. It makes the most of his resemblance to Cooke – the inspiration already for his role in the crime show Godfather of Harlem. His glowing chemistry with Johnson is above and beyond.

And you may not be prepared for his phenomenal singing – the jazz-trained actor, who turned heads for his dramatic work in Waves and Luce, has more strings to his bow at 25 than any contemporary who springs to mind. He charms your socks right the way off here, and helps The High Note get away with being a fuzzy major chord you’ve heard before.