Movies about superstars often set themselves up for failure. The “it” factor—that which can elevate an artist/performer to an icon—is necessarily elusive, but movies routinely try, try, and fail to capture and compress the kind of lightning in a bottle that flashes only a few times a generation. The massive gulf between the skillset (and often specific charisma) required for a pop star and an actor is the undoing of so many rock-star quasi-biopics. When Natalie Portman took the stage at the end of the otherwise frequently provocative Vox Lux, waddling and warbling like an amateur, I wondered if I was witnessing the punchline to a joke about how frivolous pop life is. (However, at a post-screening Q&A, the Vox Lux director Brady Corbet assured me, “We really tried to make her a very good pop star”). In contrast, The Rose, Mark Rydell’s 1979 approximate retelling of Janis Joplin’s downfall, remains the gold standard in the cinematic rock star character study subgenre because of its star Bette Midler’s tour de force. She was playing a rock star, yes, but more importantly she is one. Lady Gaga carried the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born for the same reason. Bohemian Rhapsody was awkward and ahistorical, but Rami Malek’s ability to command the stage made his eventual Oscar for the role not quite the out-of-left-field travesty that many argued it was.
It’s hard to be a rock star, and it’s hard to make hit records that resonate culturally. It follows that these are hard things to imitate, as a legion of also-rans and coulda-beens can attest. Movies about iconic musicians, real or fictionalized, make the stuff of phenomena part of their world-building, which is like creating a city out of actual stardust. So much of the time, I watch these movies and wonder, “Who are these people?” even when the movie itself exists to answer that very question. I can think of no example more egregious than Alex Ross Perry’s 2018 film Her Smell, in which Elisabeth Moss plays a Courtney Love-esque rocker on a downward spiral. Her band filled stadiums and landed on the cover of Spin, but there’s little evidence as to why. We see the band play on stage without charisma or much energy, their sound a soft approach to ’90s indie (Throwing Muses gone splat). You gotta get the rock-star part right to make a rock star movie. Failing this, you plunge your audience into the uncanny valley with a movie that purports to be about the real world but is as lifelike and relevant as a fairytale.
Unfortunately, Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note also left me wondering, “Who is she?” The superstar in question is Grace Davis, a veteran diva who hasn’t released an album of new material in 10 years but nonetheless appears on the cover of People, gets her own Spotify billboard on Sunset, and plays to packed stadiums. We are given glimpses of her past catalog of hits via vaguely Philly soulful songs that, naturally, would have been laughed out of Philadelphia. When we see Grace, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, onstage, she seems meek and clumsy, her broad and simple choreography only highlighting this. The only real-life diva today who comes close to having this kind of magnetic pull well after her hit-making peak is Celine Dion, though she does regularly release records and her still-pristine voice and electric onstage energy make her enduring draw no mystery. Ross, whose voice tends to be flat even when buoyed by Autotune, is no Celine Dion.
Ross is no Diana Ross, either. While it’s tempting to draw parallels between her character and her mom, Diana just has it—the effortless glamor, the ability to make the absolute most out of a relatively limited vocal range, the force to glide across the stage so as to appear to be floating. While The High Note finds Grace at a sort of crossroads, as she figures out how to age in an ageist business while remaining true to herself, the script remains so fawningly respectful of this fictional superstar that it’s written with a yes-man’s disingenuousness. The idea that Grace might be clinging to an industry that has already let her go is repeatedly shooed away—yes, her last album didn’t do very well, and yes, it’s very hard for women over 40 to go to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (though, as Vulture pointed out, the script botches its exact relaying of this information), but there is never any doubt that Grace will prevail because she deserves to do so. She’s one of the greats—or so we’re left to assume.
The toothlessness of her arc is commensurate with her character, though Ross’s choice to play Grace with low-key self-possession does seem to be deliberately naturalistic. Wise or not, this approach is a choice. Grace is not prone to cartoonish outbursts or the kind of diva tantrums one might imagine a star of her caliber would regularly help herself to. She is efficiently cutting. She demands things and then demands they be taken away. She naturally assumes everything is about her. She is at one with her entitlement, moving the world with a flick of her wrist, the glance of an eye.
But against the backdrop of the distorted rock-star world that The High Note builds almost immediately, Grace is flat. We can only root for her because we’re told to do so—this is a movie reliant on telling and not showing, which is a shame because pop stardom is ripe for immersive satire. The High Note had so much potential for telling the story of how a performer considered to be one of the greats conducts herself well after her career has peaked—it could have been camp, it could have been a screaming tragedy, it could have been a total farce—but instead sticks to the middle of the road, making sure nothing bad happens to the millionaire’s power or position.
And anyway, Grace is a footnote, a supporting character. The protagonist of the movie is actually her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), a walking music encyclopedia with benevolent designs to break into the industry for real. Maggie knows that the same guy who produced “No Scrubs,” Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs, also produced “Bills, Bills, Bills.” She knows Bobby “Blue” Bland originally sang “Share Your Love with Me.” She has a lot of ideas about how to make music by black people better: She attempts to remix some of Grace’s work and starts to collaborate with a talented singer-songwriter named David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) after he introduces himself in a grocery store by loudly singing along to a radio playing Phantom Planet’s “California.” After hearing David’s demo, Maggie offers several suggestions to improve it. He takes her up on the offer and given the movie’s feel-good tone, obviously, their musical partnership will be a harmonious one. The music-crafting scenes require him to sing a song called “Track 8” repeatedly. Here’s the opening line: “You’re like Track 8 on my favorite record/Nobody knows your name, but I would die for you.” For the record, “I Would Die 4 U” is Track 7 on Purple Rain. “Track 8” also contains the couplet, “Why you always gettin’ in the back seat?/Get up in the front I’m not a taxi,” which is repeated several times throughout the movie to increasing hilarity. Is it a song about love or car-pooling?
The race dynamic of Maggie and her collaborators is never explored. The idea that as a white woman, Maggie has that extra little something to make black music really sing reminded me of La La Land, when Ryan Gosling’s character saves jazz. Screenwriter Flora Greeson based her script for The High Note on her own experiences as a personal assistant but apparently was not interested in interrogating forces at work beyond those that make starting out a career in the industry difficult. Maggie is the underdog and the story’s resolution requires her prosperity. It’s one thing to assert that white people water down black music to make it more palatable for mass audiences—that could lead to a broader critique of the industry or a cynical spin on Maggie’s triumph. It’s another thing to have Maggie be the savior of two black artists’ careers.
It’s a story made backward by its unwillingness to look inward. After last year’s disastrous Late Night, this is Ganata’s second film in a row that operates as an industry fantasy, sanding down edges when it should be poking holes. If we’re looking at things charitably, Late Night and The High Note are well-intentioned light fare that ultimately uphold the power structures a superficial glance indicates they’re interested in breaking down. The High Note feels like something from the ’90s that requires you to check your brain at the door. (A preposterous 11th-hour twist confirms Ganata and Greeson’s lack of faith in their audience’s intelligence.) It’s escapist but only because empty gesturing toward social commentary is its own kind of escapism.