Do you ever have that feeling when you’re watching a movie, and you ask yourself “how many times have I seen a story like this done like this before?” The High Note is one of those movies during which I asked myself this question. And when a film plays out almost exactly how you would expect, with execution as standard-issue as its story, the small glimpses of what could have been only make you more frustrated with what you ended up getting.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night), from a script by Flora Greeson, The High Note stars Dakota Johnson as Maggie, who has dreams of becoming a music producer. And she desperately wants to prove her talents to her boss, who just so happens to be mega-star singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). As a strung-out personal assistant to Davis, Maggie also seems to be the only one who cares about making sure Davis’s voice comes through in her music. Her manager (Ice Cube) always looks for the safe route to being successful, acknowledging that the cutthroat business of the music industry comes with specific hurdles for women of color.
But Maggie wants what’s best for Grace’s art, and that tug-of-war between art and business drives a lot of the conflicts in The High Note. And when Maggie meets a young, relatively unknown singer (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) with considerable talent, she sees an opportunity to prove her producing talents to Grace and follow through on her dream of making it in the industry.
So much of The High Note is so by-the-numbers and routine for films of its type that the few scenes and moments that feel fresh can’t save it. One of its main problems is that the most interesting aspect of its story is only glanced upon, but never fully explored. As a middle-aged, black singer, Grace Davis has to fight an uphill battle to remain in the spotlight and truly make her mark. And we see how various industry people try to overwrite her voice or pigeonhole her as an artist.
Ice Cube’s Jack Robertson understands what it took to get Grace where she is now. He just wants her to have opportunities, which sometimes come at an artistic cost. There is a story in there that feels like an opportunity for a fresh, relevant perspective. And yet, this story line becomes secondary to a very blandly familiar look at a young white woman trying to land her dream job. The balance is off, and it’s tipping in the wrong direction.
Dakota Johnson has impressed me in art-house films like Suspiria (2018), Bad Times at the El Royale, and A Bigger Splash. She barely makes an impression here, though. Part of that is the dialogue she is saddled with. Part of it is that she never seems fully committed in her performance; half of the time, it looks like she’s about to break character. Tracee Ellis Ross and Ice Cube are good, and they have more interesting shades to play than Johnson. And Kelvin Harrison, Jr. turns on the charm as up-and-comer David Cliff.
It’s all directed in highly glossy fashion by Ganatra, who struggles to enervate or distinguish the film from others like it. She handles some of the dramatic scenes with relative restraint. But a lot of the humor falls flat, with only Ice Cube getting the best moments in the comedy department. It’s a very passive viewing experience, so much so that when a huge reveal happens with five minutes left of the movie, it had little to no emotional effect on me (or even the story being told).
The High Note hits all the usual romantic comedy beats without much spark, making it feel 10-years dated upon arrival. It’s disheartening to watch a film so aggressively follow the beaten path, to the point that it ignores the kernels of interesting ideas buried underneath all the cookie-cutter formula.
The High Note is rated PG-13, and it will be available to rent on-demand starting this Friday.
All images courtesy of Focus Features.
The High Note
- There are sparks of interesting ideas, with regards to Grace's fight to survive within the music industry
- Tracee Ellis Ross and Ice Cube liven things up
- Most of the humor falls flat
- Third act reveal detracts from overall story
- Standard-issue execution of an overly familiar story