Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Focus Features.
The High Note, which stars Tracee Ellis Ross as an aging singer and Dakota Johnson as her assistant, starts off as a straightforward music-biz dramedy, but it contains a third-act revelation that brings it into full-on soap opera territory. Directed by Late Night’s Nisha Ganatra from a Black Listed script by Flora Greeson, the movie’s twist has been called “bizarre,” “outrageously silly,” and “a true eye-roller” in reviews. Allow us to explain.
OK, so what is the twist?
First, some background. For three years, Maggie (Johnson) has been the personal assistant to legendary superstar Grace Davis (Ross), who is struggling to stay relevant and contemplating a 10-year Las Vegas residency instead of recording a new album. But Maggie has loftier goals than picking the peanuts out of Grace’s kung pao chicken—she wants to be a producer. Though Grace won’t indulge Maggie’s music-biz ambitions, Maggie does get an opportunity to live out her dream elsewhere after a chance encounter with handsome amateur musician David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at the supermarket. She persuades him to let her produce his album by passing herself off as an experienced professional.
Still waiting on that twist.
I’m getting there. These two plotlines collide when Maggie arranges for Grace’s opening act to cancel so David can perform instead and be discovered—only for the scheme to backfire when Maggie tells David that she’s not a real producer, just Grace Davis’ assistant, and he refuses to open for Grace, presumably because he’s upset that Maggie lied to him about her credentials. This leaves Grace without an opening act, so Maggie loses both her job and her budding romantic relationship with David.
Grace eventually forgives Maggie and pays her an unexpected visit at her dad’s house. While Grace is there, David also shows up to see Maggie. And when a surprised David sees Grace standing in Maggie’s living room, he calls her … “Mom.”
That’s exactly how Maggie responds to this information.
Was there no hint that these two characters were related until now?
With the gift of hindsight, there were indeed a few hints. As Maggie and David get to know each other, he mentions to Maggie that his mom left him with his dad when he was little. As for Grace, early on a TV presenter explicitly says she never had children, at which point Grace applies a face mask, hiding her reaction. She later tells Maggie that she had the opportunity to get married once but chose not to: “We were in love, and … the whole thing. It was before all this happened. Then it did. And I didn’t choose him.” Knowing what we know by the end of the movie, the “him” might not have referred to David’s father but rather to David himself.
How could this very famous singer have had a secret baby that almost no one knew about?
According to Grace, she has “really good lawyers.” Also, David didn’t want it known that Grace was his mom because he wanted to be successful on his own merit.
Did you really not see this coming?
Hey, it’s not just me! Maggie is equally shocked by this news, chastising David for telling her that he reconnected with his mom but failing to mention that his mom is her former employer, Grace Davis. And sure, it’s not as though we found out that David was a ghost or a figment of Maggie’s imagination the whole time. There were definitely clues, and if anyone was going to be David’s estranged mother, of course it would be Grace. But part of what makes this twist so unexpected is how very late in the film it is revealed and how little time there is to absorb the implications. Everything important between David and Grace occurs offscreen before Maggie—or the audience—even knows that they’re related, so we never see them reckon with the years of estrangement. David and Grace don’t even appear onscreen together until more than an hour and a half into the movie, and then within minutes they’re performing a triumphant duet in concert together.
How is this plot development going over with critics?
Not well, even with critics who otherwise liked the movie. The Film Stage notes that it “dips into the realm of sitcom territory.” The New York Post calls the twist “as predictable as ‘The Macarena.’” The Washington Post writes that it’s “no less preposterous for being so glaringly obvious from the get-go.”
Any other contrivances in The High Note I should know about?
Maggie’s dad, a radio presenter, reveals that he interviewed Grace in 1989. As they’re reminiscing, Grace recalls that his pregnant wife walked in during the interview. “That was Maggie,” says dad of the fetus. “Small world.”
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus