The High Note
A great cast, including Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross, can't completely lift this formulaic music industry-set comedy.
September 24, 2020
Partway through The High Note, lifelong music buff and aspiring producer Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) sits in a recording studio with the up-and-coming musician, David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr), she's certain will be the next best thing. He's singing while she's listening, but the latter doesn't like what she hears — so she slides into the booth with him, spins an inspiring story designed to get him both excited and comfortable, and coaxes out his smooth, melodic, possible hit single-worthy best. It's one of those exchanges that only exists in the movies, and in cinema's fantasy vision of the creative process. It also sparks an obvious train of thought among the film's audience. There's much that's likeable about this overtly formulaic feature, but The High Note always feels like it could've used a bit of coaxing and massaging itself — and a confidence boost to help it serve up some unexpected beats.
After first crossing David's path in a grocery store, via a meet-cute that involves arguing over the merits of Phantom Planet's The OC theme 'California' while buying ice blocks, Maggie convinces him to let her produce his first record. But that's actually her after-hours job. By day, every day (and often at night, too), she's a committed and overworked personal assistant to 11-time Grammy-winning R&B superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). That's a demanding gig, albeit for a legend; however Maggie dreams of more than merely ferrying her idol around town, picking up her dry cleaning and administering enemas on tour. With Grace's latest string of shows wrapping up, a live greatest hits album in the works and no new music released for some time, the singer herself also wants more, but her long-time manager Jack (Ice Cube) is trying to push her towards the easy money of a ten-year Las Vegas residency.
With 2019's Late Night, filmmaker Nisha Ganatra stepped inside the world of television, contrasting the journeys of a hardworking woman just starting out and a celebrated but stern female veteran of the field who is unsure of what she wants for the future. Switch the setup to music, then swap Mindy Kaling's smart Late Night screenplay for a thoroughly by-the-numbers affair by first-timer Flora Greeson, and The High Note is the end result — but without any of the resonant commentary that made its predecessor as clever and savvy as it was amusing and affecting. The fact that it isn't easy being a woman in music isn't ignored here, but it's pointed out via generic lines of dialogue that simply sound like throwaway soundbites. The reality that both ageism and racism blight the industry too, and that a hugely successful Black woman over 40 still gets ignored by those calling the shots, receives the same cursory treatment. Instead, The High Note is more content to keep any statements as superficial and easy as a disposable pop song, and to deliver as standard a feel-good fairy tale-style film about chasing one's dream as an algorithm would probably spit out.
Also ranking among The High Note's struggles: a blatant, not-at-all surprising soap opera-esque twist that takes the plot into cringe-worthy territory, and a self-parodying cameo by Diplo as an autotune-loving remix specialist that overstays its short duration. Then there's the manoeuvring needed to get all the movie's main players — plus Bill Pullman as Maggie's widowed radio DJ dad, who has a thing for covers — to Catalina Island for a big climactic moment. This all smacks of a feature that could've used another few passes before making it to the screen, but tries to bop along by being be glossy and breezy. And The High Note most definitely is visibly slick and shiny, as well as light and upbeat in tone. While that isn't enough to significantly boost its fortunes, the film does benefit from a rousing soundtrack that spans both new tracks and vintage hits (including an appealing singalong to TLC's 'No Scrubs', and Harrison Jr crooning 1957 classic 'You Send Me' by the king of soul Sam Cooke).
The High Note's best asset is its cast, of course, who constantly make you wish that they were working with better material. The movie's two female leads both follow in their famous mothers' footsteps — with Johnson's mum, Melanie Griffith, playing a put-upon lackey in 80s comedy Working Girl, and Ellis Ross easily sliding into the shoes of a fierce diva like her mum, Diana Ross — and yet neither ever feels as if they're merely going through the motions. After turning in such a forceful and powerful performance in Waves, Harrison Jr is all laidback charm here, and he's just as watchable. Ice Cube also adds texture to his thinly written part, but it's the fate of two supporting actors that completely sums up the movie. The comically gifted June Diane Raphael (Long Shot) steals every scene she's in as Grace's vain, self-obsessed housekeeper, while Eddie Izzard possesses both bite and spark as another veteran singer — and, although they're barely in the film, it would've hit far higher notes if it had spent more time with either instead of with its bland main storylines.
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