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Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross star in The High Note.

Glen WIlson/Focus Features

  • The High Note
  • Directed by Nisha Ganatra
  • Written by Flora Greeson
  • Starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Ice Cube
  • Classification PG; 113 minutes

rating

3 out of 4 stars

The minute I turned off The High Note, I could see the lazy film reviews starting to form. They would start something like this: In 2019, director Nisha Ganatra made a film called Late Night, which explored the dynamic between a young woman (Mindy Kaling) hoping to break into television and an industry veteran (Emma Thompson) who had to break down barriers to get there first. In 2020, Ganatra has made a film called The High Note, which explores the dynamic between a young woman (Dakota Johnson) hoping to break into music and an industry veteran (Tracee Ellis Ross) who had to break down barriers to get there first.

With that opening out of the way, there would be the central question – “Why don’t you make a different kind of movie, Nisha?” – that would wrap the whole critique together in a quasi-condescending direction, with maybe a conciliatory line shoved in about how despite the repetition, The High Note is not a bad little film. Add a pithy little plot synopsis for good measure, and then the critic could wash their hands of it and move on to the next movie. Easy, right?

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Read more: The High Note’s Nisha Ganatra on her rom-com being a film industry ‘guinea pig’

Monthly streaming guide: Reviews of new films and TV shows on Amazon Prime Video, CBC Gem, Crave, Netflix and on-demand

Well, sure. But also – plenty of filmmakers revisit the same thematic and character curiosities over and over. But not as many learn from the mistakes of their previous work, sharpen their interests with sincerity and passion, and come out the other end with something twice as slick, twice as entertaining and twice as thoughtful. With The High Note, Ganatra has not made the same film twice – she has instead accomplished something far trickier: a doubling-down of vision. A display of genuine directorial growth.

Dakota Johnson, freed of the Fifty Shades franchise, gives a delightful performance.

Glen WIlson/Focus Features

That doesn’t mean The High Note is any kind of transcendent cinematic masterpiece. This is still a light and frothy rom-com, predictable and charming in equal measure, and most comfortable when it fits the efficient mould of genre obligations. But when it wants to, it can really crank that charm up to 11.

Johnson, clearly thrilled to be free from the shackles of her Fifty Shades franchise, offers a delightful, winsome lead performance as Maggie, a personal assistant to pop-music diva Grace (played by Ross, who fits into the role just as well as her mother, Diana, might have a few decades ago). The thing is, Maggie has ambitions of being a record producer and is slowly building the courage to ascend from the very bottom rungs of the music industry. To distract her, there’s Grace’s overbearing manager (a tough-love Ice Cube), a love interest that could use some fleshing out (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and myriad industry hangers-on who offer Maggie alternately depressing and frightening visions of what can happen when you make one wrong career move.

Tracee Ellis Ross seems as comfortable in the role of the film's pop diva as her mother, Diana Ross, would be.

Glen WIlson/Focus Features

Despite the presence of a third-act twist that pushes a troubling philosophy – it boils down to: Nepotism is great! – everything in The High Note goes as you would expect. But it all unfolds in such a seamless and pleasant fashion that no one will mind. The stars are endearing, the story is smooth and the music, most importantly, kills. Whereas the monologue jokes in Late Night felt creaky and unfamiliar to fans of Letterman and the like, the songs in The High Note bounce with genuine hooks. Ganatra has not only made an enjoyable and capable rom-com, but also a chart-worthy pop album.

So The High Note is a doubling-down that also doubles down on its cultural output. No pressure for your next project, Nisha.

The High Note is available digitally on-demand starting May 29

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