By Leah Greenblatt
May 25, 2020 at 12:00 PM EDT
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Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

You could say that Tracee Ellis Ross has spent her whole life studying to play a pop icon; after all, she was raised by one. But whatever singularity the actress has earned from growing up the daughter of Diana Ross is hard to find in The High Note (excepting, maybe, its extravagantly fabulous wardrobe).

Instead, what director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) mostly settles for is the softest corners of feel-good dramedy; a screwball fairy tale sung in the key of corny.

Ross is Grace Davis, a singer who hasn’t put out a new record in a decade but still somehow manages to sell out arenas and have billboards of her face plastered across Sunset Boulevard. She seems resigned to reworking the same old material to pay the bills, and is even starting to consider the end-game Las Vegas residency her hard-charging manager (Ice Cube), keeps steering her toward.

Her assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), is the only one who believes Grace might have a stronger second act in her if she can just get back to the studio and rediscover her roots. Coincidentally, Maggie is also an aspiring producer — something she dreams of constantly in between fetching Grace’s dry cleaning and her diuretic juices. Maggie also meets a velvet-voiced dreamboat (Waves’ Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who could become her first real collaborator, and maybe more, if only he can learn to overcome his own self-doubt.

Ross can do enough with a flick of her hair or a hard stare to make you want to follow her into Grace's glittery, bewigged wonderland. And Johnson, who seems equally at home in How to Be Single-style rom-coms and arthouse freak-outs like Suspiria, brings a sweet, stable breeziness to Maggie, though she’s never really given enough material to make her personality more than the sum of the things she likes (Sam Cooke, high-top sneakers, wispy bangs).

Together, at least, they have a natural chemistry that feels consistently stronger and more interesting than the story arc; the movie is often at its best when it's just the two of them talking on a puffy Nancy Meyers couch or in a car.

But what's most frustrating, maybe, is how little it explores the fascinating possibilities of a character like Grace. “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have had a No. 1 song,” she cautions Maggie fiercely after a botched record-label meeting. “And only one of them was black.”

It's true, and it's ridiculous. But that moment is left oddly unexamined — passed blithely over for kooky repartee, random guest spots (Diplo, Eddie Izzard, Bill Pullman), and the vague promise that some half-century of hard truths can be overcome with a few key changes and a little pixie dust.

But authenticity in general doesn't feel like Ganatra's aim; she tends to plays so fast and loose with the basics of how the music industry operates, from contracts to concerts to album-release parties, that it comes off as if nobody in the business was actually consulted — which seems even odder considering the cast. (Even Johnson's partner, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, probably could put a few red lines through the script).

Maybe it's churlish to ask all that of a film that was never intended to be more than a fantasy; the movie has its moments, some of them genuinely delightful. Still, there's a world where The High Note could have struck a stronger, deeper chord, and resonated. B–

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