Review: ‘The High Note,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ice Cube

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

“The High Note”

Directed by Nisha Ganatra

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “The High Note” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A personal assistant to a superstar music diva comes up against obstacles when the assistant tries to become a music producer.

Culture Audience: “The High Note” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about showbiz that have a predictable ending.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

It’s a pretty well-known fact at “The High Note” stars Tracey Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson grew up in the upper echelons of show business, since they both have parents who are famous entertainers. Ellis Ross’ mother is Diana Ross. Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. So with all that knowledgeable background, it’s too bad that Dakota Johnson and Ellis Ross have chosen to be in such a hollow and predictable dramedy about the music business. The irony of this movie being called “The High Note” is that there aren’t too many highlights for this film, when it comes to authenticity, laugh-out-loud humor or outstanding original songs.

However, one of the notable consistencies of the film is Ellis Ross—who does her own singing in the film and is very good at it— in her performance as spoiled superstar Grace Davis, who’s reached a crossroads in her career. Grace, who lives in Los Angeles, is famous enough to still be on the covers of People, Rolling Stone and Billboard, but she’s been coasting on her past hits because she hasn’t come out with an album of new songs in about 10 years. She still keeps herself in the public eye and continues to make millions by doing tours.

Grace’s long-suffering personal assistant Margaret “Maggie” Sherwoode has been working for Grace for three years, but what Maggie really wants to do is to be a music producer. Grace is coming out with a live album that Maggie has been secretly mixing in a recording studio in her spare time, in order for Maggie to practice her producer/mixer skills. Maggie has been able to get access to the studio, thanks to her recording engineer acquaintance Seth (played by Eugene Cordero), who’s worked with Grace and has been training Maggie in the studio.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, hits a lot of the same cringeworthy beats of Ganatra’s 2019 comedy/drama “Late Night,” a movie that flopped with audiences because it was easy to see how phony and pandering the story was. Both movies are about a plucky young woman with a big dream who thinks she can take a shortcut to that dream, just by being in the right place at the right time. The young woman works for an egotistical, middle-aged diva who’s worried about becoming a has-been. The diva boss also has to choose between continuing with a familiar and safe work routine or going outside her comfort zone to do something new.

Along the way, people discourage the young woman from following her dream because she has no real experience. And then, she and her boss end up clashing in a big way because the young woman does something that the boss really hates. (Viewers have to wait until the end of the movie to see if or how this conflict is resolved.) And this young woman ends up dating someone she works with, even though dating a co-worker is a tricky issue in this #MeToo era, when a consensual affair between co-workers can be described in very different terms later if the relationship ends badly.

In “Late Night,” which was set in the workplace of a New York City-based late-night talk show, Mindy Kaling (who wrote the “Late Night” screenplay) played the show’s inexperienced and unqualified writer Molly Patel, who’s a “diversity hire,” while Emma Thompson played the prickly boss Katherine Newbury, the show’s host/executive producer. Except for the cities and types of work in the entertainment industry, “The High Note” and “Late Night” have the same premise and are basically the same type of movie, but “The High Note” is much worse than “Late Night.”

Fortunately, Maggie in “The High Note” (written by Flora Greeson) isn’t as clueless about music as Mindy Kaling’s Molly character in “Late Night” is clueless about writing for a late-night talk show. Maggie is a true music trivia buff, who can easily name songs and albums from classic artists to contemporary hitmakers. (Sam Cooke and Carole King are among her favorite classic artists.) Maggie also comes from a music-oriented family: Her father Max (played by Bill Pullman) is a longtime radio DJ, while Maggie’s mother (who died when Maggie was 6) was a singer.

But knowing a lot of music trivia and being a talented music producer are two different things. What will make people’s eyes roll about the dumb aspects of “The High Note” is that Maggie thinks she can go from these training sessions in the recording studio to becoming Grace’s producer, without actually putting in a lot of real work as a producer to pay her dues.

Grace’s harsh and cynical manager Jack Robertson (played by Ice Cube, in yet another in his long list of cranky, foul-mouthed character roles) essentially tells Maggie that she’s acting like an entitled brat in one of the few realistic scenes in the movie. This verbal takedown of Maggie’s ego comes after Maggie insults a smarmy and pretentious but experienced hitmaking DJ/producer named Richie Williams (played in a somewhat hilarious cameo by real-life hitmaking DJ/producer Diplo), who’s recruited by Jack to work on Grace’s live album. Maggie, who’s revealed her secret mixes to Grace at this point, wants Grace to choose Maggie’s mixes instead.

Jack doesn’t particularly like Maggie for another reason. While Jack has been finagling and pressuring Grace to do a Las Vegas residency, Maggie has been encouraging Grace to make an album of new songs instead. The Vegas residency would be easy money for everyone, but Maggie thinks Grace has a lot more to say as an artist instead of doing the same show every night in Vegas for an untold number of years. In a candid conversation with Grace, Maggie tells her that she once saw Grace say in an Oprah Winfrey interview about Grace’s career: “If there are no more surprises, who am I doing it for?”

Although the Jack character is greedy, attention-hungry and generally unlikable, his persona as a manager is actually one of the more realistic things in the movie. One of the other things that “The High Note” accurately portrays is how personal assistants of rich and famous people are often treated like 24-hour-a-day on-call servants. Grace is also one of those “lonely at the top” celebrities who has no real friends and has shallow dating relationships that don’t last, and that’s why her life revolves around her career.

“The High Note” also has a pretty good send-up of the false sense of superiority that employees who work for the same celebrity can have toward other employees. Grace has a materialistic and not-very-smart house manager named Gail (played by June Diane Raphael), who acts as if she’s better than Maggie, simply because Gail gets to have reasonable working hours while Maggie does not. Gail is also the type of “yes”-person leech that Hollywood is famous for attracting when people want to be close to celebrities.

Meanwhile, Grace has a smart and likable roommate named Kate (played by Zoe Chao), who thinks Grace is wasting her talent by being a personal assistant. Maggie’s excuse for continuing to be stuck in the dead-end existence of being Grace’s assistant: “It’s the gateway to my dream job.” Katie’s reply: “It’s the gateway to Stockholm syndrome.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie.

As for Maggie’s love interest (because you know a movie like this has to have a love interest for the ingenue), his name is David Cliff (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring rock/pop musician who happens to be rich enough to own a mansion without working at a “real” job. Of course, Maggie doesn’t know all of that about David when they “meet cute” at a Laurel Canyon grocery store. While they’re standing near each other, Phantom Planet’s “California” song is playing over the store’s speakers, which leads Maggie and David to have a lively conversation about music.

When Maggie mentions Sam Cooke, she’s appalled that David says he doesn’t know who Sam Cooke is. They go their separate ways. But lo and behold, when Maggie leaves the store, she sees David playing a guitar outside the store’s entrance and singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” while he gives her a sly look. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

At some point, Maggie and Katie are invited to a big house party at David’s place, and that’s how they find out that he’s a musician who’s not financially struggling. So why is this rich guy playing substandard gigs, such as singing cover songs in front of a grocery store? It turns out that David lacks confidence to record his own music and take his career to the next level. And guess who convinces David that she can be his producer?

Of course, in a movie like this, there has to be at least one “big lie/secret” that someone will tell early in the relationship, so that the couple will fight about it later if the secret is revealed. For Maggie, her big lie is that she tells David that she’s an experienced and busy producer, which is why he agrees to let her produce his first demo recording.

And this is where the plot goes down the toilet: David believes Maggie’s claim that she’s an experienced producer, without even asking to hear other music she’s produced, without asking for references, or without doing a background check. Cue to the predictable scene of David and Maggie singing together in a recording booth. (Harrison and Dakota Johnson also do their own singing in the movie. He’s a much better singer than she is.)

As for Maggie, she doesn’t seem that curious to know how or why David is so wealthy. All he’s told her about his family background is that he was raised by his father (a saxophone player named David Cliff Sr.) after David’s mother left them when he was a very young child. For a movie that’s supposed to take place in the present-day music business, it strangely and unrealistically has no scenes of David and Maggie using the Internet to check each other out when they show an interest in each other.

After Maggie and David start sleeping together, she comes up with a dumb idea to trick him into being the opening act for Grace’s record release party—without telling David, Grace or Jack. And in order to do that, Maggie secretly convinces star singer Dan Deakins (played by Eddie Izzard, in a cameo that’s a waste of his talent), who was booked as the opening act, to back out of the gig. How does Maggie convince Dan to cancel this high-profile job? Just by playing David’s demo for Dan and asking Dan to do her this favor, even though Maggie and Dan just met. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Whether or not this moronic plan works or backfires is spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.  But that stupidity is nothing compared to the ludicrous plot twist that comes toward the end of the film. It’s a plot twist that’s not too surprising because all the signs were there, but it’s still the worst part of the movie.

There’s not much originality in “The High Note,” even in the movie’s soundtrack, which has mostly cover songs or hit songs that were previously released. “Bad Girl,” which is supposed to be Grace’s biggest hit, is a cover version of the Lee Moses song. In “The High Note,” the Grace character has two original songs that are prominently featured in the movie and are performed by Ellis Ross: “Stop for a Minute” and “Love Myself,” which is the tune heard during the end credits.

“Stop for a Minute” was co-written by Rodney Jerkins, who executive produced “The High Note” soundtrack. “Love Myself” was co-written by Greg Kurstin, who’s best known for his work with Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beck and Sia. But even the contributions of these Grammy-winning hitmakers don’t make these songs particularly outstanding or likely to be nominated for any Grammys.

In fact, there’s a lot of things about “The High Note” that are dull (including the too-long running time of nearly two hours), forgettable or just plain awful. The stars of “The High Note” should not consider it a high point of their careers, because the reality is that the movie is a lackluster low point that they’d probably like to bury.

Focus Features released “The High Note” on VOD and digital on May 29, 2020.

2018 American Music Awards: Tracee Ellis Ross returns as host

September 5, 2018

AMAs logo

 

Tracee Ellis Ross
Tracee Ellis Ross (Photo courtesy of ABC/Image Group LA)

The following is a press release from Dick Clark Productions and ABC:

Dick Clark Productions and ABC announced today that Golden Globe® Award winner and Emmy® nominee Tracee Ellis Ross, star of ABC’s hit comedy “black-ish,” will return as host and an executive producer for the “2018 American Music Awards.” Known for her love of music, impeccable comedic timing and bold sense of style, Ross will once again take the stage to preside over an evening of nonstop musical magic and unforgettable moments. The “2018 American Music Awards,” the world’s largest fan-voted awards show, will broadcast live from the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Oct. 9 at 8:00 p.m. EDT, on ABC.

Tracee Ellis Ross is the star of the hit ABC comedy series “black-ish,” which is entering its fifth season premiering Tuesday, Oct. 16. For her role, Ross won the 2017 Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series – Musical or Comedy. Most recently, Ross was nominated for a 2017 Emmy Award for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series. This followed her 2015 and 2016 Emmy nominations in the same category. She also received the 2015 and 2016 NAACP Image Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. In addition, Ross was honored and acknowledged at the 2016 ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood luncheon receiving the Fierce and Fearless Award. Ross is known for her starring role on the hit sitcom “Girlfriends,” which ran for eight seasons on the UPN/CW Network.

Nominations for the “2018 American Music Awards” will be announced live by Kane Brown, Ella Mai, Normani and Bebe Rexha on Wednesday, Sept. 12, from YouTube Space LA in Los Angeles.  American Music Awards nominees are based on key fan interactions as reflected in Billboard Magazine and on Billboard.com, including album and digital song sales, radio airplay, streaming, social activity and touring. These measurements are tracked by Billboard and its data partners, including Nielsen Music and Next Big Sound, and reflect the time period of Sept. 15, 2017, through Aug. 9, 2018.
YouTube Music is the presenting sponsor of the “2018 American Music Awards.”

The “2018 American Music Awards” is produced by dick clark productions. Barry Adelman, Mark Bracco and Tracee Ellis Ross are executive producers. Larry Klein is producer.

About the American Music Awards

The American Music Awards, the world’s biggest fan-voted award show, features performances from today’s hottest artists and presents fan-voted awards in the music genres of Pop/Rock, Alternative Rock, Country, Rap/Hip-Hop, Soul/R&B, Adult Contemporary, Contemporary Inspirational, Latin, EDM and Soundtrack, and the categories of Artist of the Year, New Artist of the Year Presented by Capital One, Collaboration of the Year, Tour of The Year and Video of the Year. The American Music Awards pays tribute to today’s most influential and iconic artists.  The show is produced by dick clark productions and is seen in more than 200 countries around the world. For more information, visit www.theamas.com, www.dickclark.com or abc.go.com/shows/american-music-awards.

About dick clark productions

Dick clark productions (dcp) is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Golden Globe Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” and the “Streamy Awards.” Weekly television programming includes “So You Think You Can Dance” from 19 Entertainment and dcp. dcp also owns one of the world’s most unique and extensive entertainment archive libraries with over 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. dcp is a division of Valence Media, a diversified media company with divisions and strategic investments in premium television, wide release film, specialty film, live events and digital media. For additional information, visit www.dickclark.com.

About YouTube Music

YouTube Music is a completely reimagined streaming music service with music videos, official albums, singles, remixes, live performances, covers and hard-to-find music you can only get on YouTube. It’s ALL here! YouTube Music serves music based on your tastes and what’s moving the community around you. Discover something new or keep up with what’s trending. Basic functions such as playing music and watching videos are totally free, but you can upgrade to YouTube Music Premium to explore the world of music ad-free, offline, and with the screen locked. Available on mobile and desktop.  For additional information, visit  www.youtube.com/musicpremium.

For the latest American Music Awards news, exclusive content and more, be sure to follow the AMAs on social and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #AMAs.
Facebook: Facebook.com/AMAs
Twitter: @AMAs
Instagram: @AMAs
Snapchat: TheAMAs
YouTube: YouTube.com/TheAMAs
Cheat tweet: She’s BACK! @TraceeEllisRoss is returning as host for the @AMAs, LIVE October 9th on ABC: amas.news/18Host #AMAs #ABCPublicity
Tickets are now on sale at www.axs.com.

Tracee Ellis Ross backstage at the 2017 Golden Globe Awards

January 9, 2017

by Carla Hay

The 74th annual Golden Globe Awards took place on January 8, 2017, at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS

Golden Globe win:

Best Actress in a Television Series – Comedy or Musical

(“Blackish”)

Here is what this Golden Globe winner said backstage in the Golden Globe Awards press room.

Tracee Ellis Ross at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 8, 2017.
Tracee Ellis Ross at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 8, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

BACKSTAGE INTERVIEW

How do you identify with your “Blackish” character?

In many ways, but in many ways I didn’t. I’m not a mother, I’m not a doctor, and I’m not married, but we’re so much alike. Bow Johnson, what I do identify with is that she’s a strong woman with a full life whose story is not told through her husband. And that really is something I identified with. She’s a woman with a big heart.

And one of the things that originally drew me to the character that I really loved she actually really loved her husband. And often, in comedies, a lot of the married comedy kind of thing that happens is that the husband and the wife don’t like each other, and that’s where the foil comes from, but love that this couple actually loved each other.

What’s your favorite memory from the “Blackish” production?

I don’t have children, but I love working with the four kids on the show. It’s been a really beautiful and fun journey watching them grow up. Marcus [Scribner] turned 17 yesterday, and watching them grow and sort of navigate this business has been a really fun experience. And we giggle and laugh at work all day long. We have a really good time. That’s probably my favorite part.

What did you think of the body of work that was considered for the nomination and helped win you this award?

Oh, I thought you meant the other women [nominees], because I was going to say I think they’re amazing … I feel really proud of the show in general. Our writers are exceptional, and every week I feel surprised by our scripts and the way that they very courageously tackle heavy subjects—and yet somehow the show is so funny.

And the way they write for my character is really interesting. As I said earlier, often as the wife character, your storyline is through your husband. And that’s not really the case on our show. And it makes it a really fun experience for me to kind of be challenged every week to find my way. There’s been a couple of favorite episodes this season.

You’ve been nominated for other awards and didn’t win. Is the reward the nomination or does winning even better?

It is the nomination, but winning is really sweet. You know, I’ve been doing this for quite a while. It’s not my first time at the rodeo even though it’s my first time at the Golden Globes, so one of the things I asked myself very early on in my career is, “What do award shows mean to me in the context of the work that I do?” And I would do it whether I was getting nominated for things or not, but I think one of the things that’s very special about being nominated and then most particularly about winning is that you actually get to thank the people that make it possible, because none of us do it alone.

It’s such a collaborative art television so the combination of ABC supporting our show and putting billboards up and making sure that people knew where to find us and then the writing that happens in our extraordinary crew and the cast are so many pieces and so winning and being able to stand on that stage and say those names and say those things and then also to have a platform to say things that are important to me in a larger way is what makes winning so special.

What was the first thing that went through your mind when you won, and how are you going to celebrate?

You mean tonight? I was like “Wait they said my name, right? This is so cool!” It was really cool and is really cool and like a special treat. And then I said my entire speech to Meryl Streep. I was looking right at her. And I was like, “Are we doing good? Great!” Yeah, I hope to party as much as possible, but I have a very big week of work, so I’ll be at work at seven in the morning.

What would you hope that young women, especially women of color, would see when they see you accept your award?

I think what I said is really what I mean. I feel like I  receive this award and hold this now I’m as a “inspired by” and “being a face for” as standing on that stage for women of color and colorful people. And I think that you know this nomination was really exciting to me, as was my Emmy nomination. I’m excited to see the industry look outside of where they usually look is very special to me and is very important, and I think it’s something we need to continue to do more of. I think it’s not since 1983 that a black woman has [won] in this category with Debbie Allen …

I think that our industry really can be at the forefront of making sure that the diversity of stories is told, and diversity does not just mean people of color. It’s all different ages and shapes and sizes, and all of it making sure that the stories that we tell and how we celebrate those stories actually represents the humanity that we all live in. So I hope that young women continue to be encouraged to be themselves—and not just young women—young men, all of us.

What does it mean to you to be the first black woman to win this award in this category in more than 30 years?

Holy moly, when you say it that way, I don’t know quite a process that! It means a lot. Goodness! I think my shoulders got a little heavier and I got a little taller all at the same time. I think that’s something I’m going have to ponder for the next couple days but I think it’s some of it is for me to ponder, and I think more of it is for our industry and all of us to ponder.

I think it’s something that we just need to do better at. I think the work is there, the stories are there, and I also feel really special to be in the category with Debbie Allen. I reposted her post because … it’s Debbie Allen, for God sakes! So yeah, very cool. It’s also cool to be a member of a family with two Golden Globe winners.

How does it feel to carve out a totally different path from your parents in show business?

Normal. It feels like it was sort of what I was raised to do, to be myself. I never felt like I was in my mother’s shadow. I know that always comes up when you have a very famous or prominent parent that people say things like that. “How does it feel to be in your parent’s shadow?”

I’ve actually always felt like I was in my mother’s embrace, and part of the way she raised me and all five of her kids is really to follow my heart and follow my dreams and do the hard work to get there. And so I feel like it’s actually kind of sweet and charming and wonderful to have a different experience and yet have so much that is the same as my mom. She’s been here, I had never been to the Globes so I got ask her what to expect.

Can you comment on some of the monologue jokes related to the incoming president?

I think I will let this moment be about my Golden Globe … I’m basking in the glow of this award.

In a few days, a lot of people think a white supremacist will be running this country. What do you suggest people do to change so this won’t happen in the future?

I will keep it focused on this moment and sort of answer that through this moment, which is that I think I’m continuing to tell our own stories and to stand up for what we believe in as individuals is very important.  And I think how I accepted my award tonight spoke to how I feel about all different kinds of stories being represented.