Review: Endearing 'The High Note' sings familiar tune
Courtesy of Focus Features
“Late Night” director Nisha Ganatra is back in the hot seat for “The High Note” which, like the movie she directed before, is tackling societal and gender norms in a male dominated industry. In this instance, it’s the high-strung world of pop music. “The High Note” has more working in its favor than “Late Night” as Flora Geeson’s screenplay peppers the film with relatable characters and doesn’t feel like a lousy sitcom pilot, but the film sings a familiar tune, one that might make audiences feel duped after they drop $20 to rent it when it could just as easily landed on Netflix.
Granted, the film has the benefit of Tracee Ellis Ross playing an R&B superstar dealing with a mid-tier career crisis. Her Grace Davis is pushing the other side of 40 and is trying to redefine her music for the next generation. When she suggests putting out a fresh and new album, her manager (Ice Cube) suggests a residency in Las Vegas playing already established hits to sold out crowds’ night after night. Don’t get us wrong, Davis is a self-prescribed diva with just enough vocal power and warmth to make you root for her success.
Keeping her on track and in check is her personal assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson) who – like most aspiring college grads – has ambitions beyond breaking in a pair of superstar heels. She secretly works in her downtime on remixes of Davis’ classics, including a revamp of a live album set to be released soon. Johnson – not too far removed from her “Fifty Shades” roots, minus the sex – doesn’t struggle to fit in the role and mirrors other resourceful women trying to appease a demanding female boss ala “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Maggie’s producing aspirations don’t go beyond flipping a few sound nobs and saying, “Take it from the top,” but she catches a break when Kelvin Harrison Jr’s David Cliff, an up and coming artist, decides to work with her. Of course, a romantic courtship ensues and “The High Note” detours heavily into corny territory.
Filled with catchy tunes, “The High Note” doesn’t throw many obstacles at the screen and wraps up the central conflicts (of which, there aren’t many) into a nice and tidy package. Yet it’s the tenacity and endearing qualities amongst Maggie and Grace that allow the film to really sing. You can tell the two emulate a bond that goes beyond their professional relationship and how one isn’t complete without the other: it’s a partnership made in heaven and obviously the audience understands that even when the clueless characters do not.
For most of the film, Maggie does get thrown in the ringer and is constantly told how she’s the root of many of Grace’s problems and you wonder who would put up with that type of treatment? Alas, “The High Note” brushes over those dramatic caveats in favor of routine narrative tactics and go-for-broke laughs like Grace’s assumed sexual relationship with actor Michael B Jordan. Ross deserves credit for garnering some chuckles in a film that can’t decide if it wants to be a musical comedy or music drama. It settles between the two and if not for one minor twist near the finale, “The High Note” might not have produced as many eye rolls. (Cue Eddie Izzard appearing as a washed-up rocker who shows up to help Maggie in her time of need at the last possible second).
There really are no villains in “The High Note” other than the ladder of success and watching Maggie desperately try to overcome it proves a rather daunting and uninteresting task that worked better in “Late Night.” Maggie is told over and over that she’ll never make it as a producer (spoiler alert: we all know she will) but it’s the enjoyable dynamic between herself and Davis that gives the film its zest and allots “The High Note” enough merit to overcome its conventional standards.
THE HIGH NOTE will be available to rent from various digital platforms starting Friday May 29th – the film was originally set to hit theaters May 10th prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.