“Do not sell yourself short.”
Like a greatest hits collection from the vast majority of past their prime artists, The High Note doesn’t bring anything new to the table. That’s not to say that it’s all bad and stale either though. The film has all of the hallmark tropes disguised as the tracks we’ve memorized, and it layers in a few throwaway, lesser known songs in as well just to beef up both its run time and its library of so-called hits. Which is to say that the highs come close to soaring and the lows are, to be honest, quite forgettable. The High Note suffers from stage fright out the gate, finds a romantic core in the middle, and gets into the swing of things just as the curtains close. It’s the kind of film you can easily enjoy, and just as easily imagine being so much better.
The legendary Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, clearly channeling her mother Diana Ross in the too few performance scenes), hasn’t recorded a new song in over 10 years. As a middle-aged black woman, she knows that history suggests the creative phase of her career is over. That she should just keep pressing replay. Even the higher-ups suggest she take a Vegas residency, getting on stage and performing the same set list night after night. Beside Grace throughout – or, more accurately, just a step behind – as she contemplates the decision is her personal assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, one of American cinema’s most fascinating actresses), a music lover with an encyclopedic mind and a secret skill for producing. Grace doesn’t know this though, mostly because she’s painted as an unlikable, self-absorbed diva from the start. It’s hard to care about her when the film spends so much time showing us why we, and why Maggie, simply shouldn’t.
The dynamic between the two starkly different women is believable enough though, and offers a nice segue as the story becomes more involved with Maggie’s growth, both as a woman and as an artist. It’s surprising that the film really is more interested in developing her character, showing her creative drive and her budding romance with David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a good looking guy with a soulful voice that’s as sweet as honey. It gets to the point where you almost forget about Grace Davis, even though Tracee Ellis Ross delivers big when given the brief opportunity to explore the humanity of the superstar she’s inhabiting. Most of the side characters are practically cardboard cutouts, although Bill Pullman is reliably winning as Maggie’s radio host father. That’s what is most frustrating about The High Note; Flora Greeson’s script has two interesting and engaging perspectives but it never adheres to one, making for something that’s both watchable and far too hit or miss.
Less than a few minutes into the movie I honestly jotted down in my notes, without looking up credits or crew members, “This really wants to be A Star is Born meets Late Night.” I’m assuming most know the former film about an aged musician spiraling towards his own demise, and I’m guessing the majority don’t know the latter, which was a middling story about a seasoned late night host and her spark plug of a female diversity hire. Low and behold, director Nisha Ginatra directed Late Night and The High Note, and the films are so similar in tone and structure that, despite being penned by different writers, it feels as if she’s essentially given life to twin features born in different media sectors. Ginatra is a good director – her style seems to be a modernized Nancy Meyers – who deserves better material to work from. I really hope that she gets more opportunities in the industry, because while it’s incredibly uneven on a narrative level, The High Note is a baby step in the right direction for a filmmaker who knows how to sit with a scene and to execute a surprise twist. This one manages to look and sound better than I can only assume the sheet music would read.
“Can we do it again?”
Rating: 3 out of 5