THE HIGH NOTE

★★★

A MID-TEMPO COMEDY ROMP

ONLINE ENTERTAINMENT
By Ashley Teresa
7th June 2020

Sometimes, one must ask themselves if films must always be "good". I'm not talking a guilty pleasure; I'm referring to films that seem to be made for simultaneously no one in their blandness but for everyone in their mass appeal - the kind of film that you may know nothing about prior to viewing it, but you can correctly guess every single plot beat after five minutes. 'The High Note', a new film by Emmy and Golden Globe winner Nisha Ganatra ('Late Night') may just be the most perfect example of one of these films. It offers absolutely nothing new to the comedy, drama or music genres it traverses, yet has just enough charm and just enough laughs that it's impossible to not have at least a bit of fun with it.

Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, 'Little', and daughter of musical legend Diana Ross) is in the twilight of her career, a singer whose decades-long success now clings to life through Greatest Hits albums, live albums and of course, a Greatest Hits live album. Her career hasn't impacted her diva-like demands, however, and it's up to her personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, 'The Peanut Butter Falcon') to ensure Grace doesn't have a meltdown over something as miniscule as a green juice. It's all very 'The Devil Wears Prada'-esque, but Maggie has bigger aspirations for herself; she is a budding musical producer looking for the chance to make her break. Who better than to help her than her own boss? Maggie's rose-coloured glasses are soon snatched straight off her face by Grace's manager Jack (a criminally underused Ice Cube, 'Fist Fight'), stressing that Maggie arrogantly mistakes her job as a stepping stone and needs to become a great producer in her own right.

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'The High Note' should be commended for giving both of its female leads arcs of varying nuance. While it would be easy to just focus on Maggie's struggle to be taken seriously, there is so much depth to Grace and her arc that her moments of non-diva behaviour are the film's best and brightest. Grace's fear of becoming a washed-up musician bleeds into every aspect of her lavish lifestyle, and this is exacerbated by her belief that being black and a woman will shorten her career even more so. It's heartbreaking watching her confidently enter a manager meeting only to be told between subtle hints that her fanbase now comprises solely of mothers, and her market value doesn't extend beyond a Vegas residency. Grace's fears don't need to be stated explicitly as they're excellently built up to in a number of different ways, but sadly the script doesn't trust its audience and spells them out in big emotional moments. Thank goodness Ross can sell these scenes in a way that feels organic and real.

Even if the script dips into cheese like bread into fondue, there are enough needle drops to (mostly) cover it up. It's as if Ganatra has an uncanny ability to divert audience attention with music any way she chooses. Suddenly, a contrived meet-cute in a supermarket is saved by playing 'California' by Phantom Planet over the scene. Surely it's impossible to shake your head over a bad script when it's busy nodding along to a great song, right? Well, almost. Instead of Maggie having an actual personality, she is instead a walking musical encyclopedia, namedropping artists as if that's how people actually speak in real life. It's great for showing her passion for music, but tells us nothing about who she is as a person. As a result, the inevitable second act where Maggie's high life comes tumbling down feels remarkably void of emotion and strangely cold. It also makes it incredibly hard to buy into her budding romance with musician David (Kelvin Harrison Jr, 'Waves'). Johnson's soft voice and withdrawn persona have made the excellent springboard for cunning and quiet characters (see: her work with Luca Guadagnino in 'A Bigger Splash' and 'Suspiria') but Maggie is arguably neither of cunning nor quiet. It's a miracle that Johnson is such a delight whenever she's on screen, for without her there would be virtually no reason not to just skip through to Ross' scenes.

Ross and Harrison Jr have such wonderful singing voices that they elevate the very bland pop music they're performing.

A film about music is nothing without a strong soundtrack, and Ross and Harrison Jr have such wonderful singing voices that they elevate the very bland pop music they're performing. 'The High Note' is wise to sparingly insert full performances of original songs, preferring to deliver short scenes or place a dialogue-heavy montage over the top. It's a real shame because if for no other reason, a memorable song or two would have done wonders for this film's rewatch factor, which sadly is virtually nonexistent.

You could do a lot worse than 'The High Note' for a light two hours when there's nothing else to watch; it's just unfortunate that its charismatic cast can't save an off-pitch script.

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