Dakota Johnson plays a personal assistant and Tracee Ellis Ross is the pop diva she works for in a movie that can't decide if it's a behind-the-music-industry drama or a go-for-your-dream fairy tale.
Dakota Johnson, with her sun-dazed smile and wary doe-eyed glow (the look of an innocent who knows how to thread her way through a world of predators), can be a winsomely appealing performer, but what is she doing in “The High Note” playing Maggie, the personal assistant to an imperious pop-star diva? It’s the kind of job that would toughen up anyone who’s had it for a week. But Maggie, after three years of working for Grace Davis, a high-maintenance superstar from the ’90s played by Tracee Ellis Ross, still seems like a college student who won an internship. She’s sweet, naive, and docile, even when the position requires her to be demanding. She comes off more like an assistant to the assistant.
Maggie lives in gobsmacked awe of Grace, who performs in sold-out arenas all over the world, even though she hasn’t put out a new album in a decade. Ross, in her first movie role since “Black-ish” premiered six years ago, is playing a music legend who seems a synthesis of Alicia Keys and Madonna (even if her look and bearing suggest Robin Roberts crossed with Lani Guinier), and she makes her a formidable figure. She bites down into Grace’s effrontery, turning her into a regal but troubled power broker who controls her own destiny, even as she’s surrounded by cynics and vipers, like her manager, Jack (Ice Cube), who’s all about the Benjamins, or the unctuous millennial suits at her record label.
Maggie is the soft eye at the center of the storm — the sane one, the nice one, wafting through the shark-tank music industry on a blanket of good vibes. She still has a roommate (played by the sharp-tongued Zoë Chao); she has a puritan disdain for L.A. pool parties (and she’s a pop star’s assistant?). Her dream is to be a record producer, and to that end she has assembled her own secret cut of Grace’s new live album. But the script of “The High Note,” by Flora Greeson, is long on wish-fulfillment and short on inside authority, and the director, Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night”), stages it with a hit-or-miss geniality that keeps cutting corners on the story’s emotional honesty. The feel-good factor hovers over this movie like a fuzzy bland cloud.
At a hip grocery store, Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr., from “Waves”), a handsome singer-songwriter with a rockin’ MOR vibe, and the two have a “High Fidelity” music-geek convo that dances on the edge of cringey-ness. She doesn’t like “Hotel California” (“The Eagles are hokey, and Don Henley is a very mean man…it’s like the ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ of Southern California soft rock”), and he doesn’t know who Sam Cooke is — or at least he pretends not to, until she catches him crooning “You Send Me” in the grocery parking lot, at which point Sam Cooke takes over as the film’s Signifier Of Musical Integrity.
Will Grace sign on for a Vegas residency, with Caesars Palace dangling a deal in front of her? There is much Sturm und Drang over this, though given that Grace has been a nostalgia act for years, where’s the drama (or plausibility) in her hemming and hawing? As for Maggie, does she have what it takes to go from wannabe to record producer? If her transformation of David from zero to musical hero is any evidence, she certainly does, but just when you’re sure this tinsel fairy tale can’t get any more glittery, there’s a last-act twist that will leave you going “No, they didn’t!” Yes, they did.