Dakota Johnson, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Tracee Ellis Ross and Ice Cube in ‘The High Note’
At its best, Focus Features and Working Titles’s The High Note is a lazy river-type movie. It’s leisurely-paced, relatively grounded and rooted in the specific pleasures of watching good actors play nice people who deal with their specific conflicts as nicely as possible. There are no real villains, and the film drags itself to a cathartic conclusion almost by accident, including at least one needless third-act coincidence. That the Nisha Ganatra-directed musical dramedy is debuting not in theaters but on PVOD this Friday is itself ironic. Just as (for example) Michael Dowse’s Netflix
flick Coffee and Kareem felt like a smaller-scale, lower-budget version of Stuber, so too does The High Note often play like a buttoned-down and “straight to DVD” version of Ganatra’s bigger, glossier Late Night.
While last year’s Emma Thompson/Mindy Kaling showbiz melodrama earned plenty of comparisons to The Devil Wears Prada, it and The High Note are arguably superior in that neither punishes either the older, successful woman or the young, eager-to-succeed would-be protege. At no point in either Late Night nor The High Note is our young, power-seeking female protagonist shamed for ignoring her boyfriend and her social circle. Late Night is currently available on Amazon Prime and I absolutely recommend it. The High Note is a less polished, more lackadaisical but frankly more grounded variation of a similar story, even thought it comes courtesy of a different screenwriter (Flora Greeson as opposed to Mindy Kaling). If you liked the former, you’ll probably dig this one too.
Starring Dakota Johnson as an assistant to an aging music star (Tracee Ellis Ross) who yearns to be a producer, the film divides its time between two specific stories, only one of which made the cut in terms of pre-release marketing. Yes, at least some of the film’s 113-minute running time concerns Grave Davis internally debating whether to take up a residency in Las Vegas (which would be tantamount to retirement) or take a chance on releasing an album of new music after years of coasting on her classics. And, yes, Maggie would prefer that Grace cut a new album, ideally with herself as a producer. This plot, while sold as the A-story, is lacking in urgency or much in the way of outright conflict.
At least as much screen time, if not more, is offered to Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a young musician who Maggie sees as both a future star and a potential “first client” as a music producer. Yes, there are sparks, which makes sense because both Maggie and David are ridiculously good-looking young adults, but any potential romance takes a backseat to creative and artistic ambitions. Alas, Maggie needlessly lies to her would-be client in terms of her actual occupation, claiming to be an already-established professional. While the big reveal happens earlier than you’d expect, it’s still an unnecessary complication. Nonetheless, Johnson and Harrison Jr. have a relaxed, natural chemistry, and their slow-burn scenes form the film’s emotional backbone. None of this was in the trailer.
The lovely-looking picture casually hops along, always pleasant, never boring and occasionally blunt in regard to Maggie’s expectations versus the reality of the business. Some of the best moments come when those around her (including Ice Cube as Grace’s current producer) correctly give her the business in terms of how her “I believe in myself” mentality can do as much harm as good. The High Note is a low-stakes picture with comparatively minor goals, and yet it works on its own specific terms as an enjoyable character play with just enough big-scale musical moments to drop into the trailer. As far as recommendations, if you were considering seeing it in theaters, then you’ll find it worth the $20 rental fee when the occasion arrives this weekend.
Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis in THE HIGH NOTE
Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in ‘The High Note’
‘The High Note’ poster