FINALLY! New content! What we have all been waiting for! The fact that The High Note is good is just an added bonus.
Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) is the biggest name in pop music. Or, at least, she was – a decade ago. Now, she is coasting along, trying to keep her career above water with only Live and Best of albums as her flotation devices. Her manager, Jack (Ice Cube), is happy with this trajectory. In fact, he encourages it. The safer bet is the better bet. As long as they are making money. Grace’s personal assistant, Maggie (Dakota Johnson) however, has different ideas for both Grace and herself. She wants Grace to continue sharing her gift with the world and she wants to be the one to produce it. Maggie is an enormous fan of Grace, R&B, and music, as a whole. With a dad that worked in radio and a mom that was a singer, music has always been her passion. The love she has for it flows through her veins.
“With a dad that worked in radio and a mom that was a singer, music has always been her passion. The love she has for it flows through her veins.”
While trying to convince Grace to take her career off life support and breathe some air into it, Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The two hit it off quickly through their shared love of music. Maggie learns that David is an amateur singer-songwriter and sees it as an opportunity to begin her new career. She tells David that she is a producer and can help him become a star. What she doesn’t anticipate is how her focus on David, both professionally and romantically, is going to affect her relationship with Grace.
Being one of only a few new movies to come out in the last two months means that The High Note has an advantage. People, myself included, are desperate for new movies. I think I speak for many when I say that we will take what we can get. What a pleasant surprise it is to find out that The High Note doesn’t need this advantage. Despite its familiar premise, it is a genuinely good movie. A large reason that the movie works is because the cast plays off of each other so well. If I am being honest, when I saw the cast, I didn’t think much of them. I like all of the four main stars but none of them strike me as personal favorites. By the end, each actor surprised me in their own way.
“Despite its familiar premise, it is a genuinely good movie.”
As Maggie, Johnson is likable enough that we want to see her succeed. Even when she is engaging in the same, unnecessary lies that will inevitably be found out that we always see in movies like this. As her demanding boss, Ross is really given freedom to show off her acting chops. This character is usually played out in an over the top manner but Ross plays her in a way that is grounded in reality, allowing for some nuance to the character. Ice Cube flexes his comedic muscle by playing Grace’s harsh but overprotective manager. Finally, Harrison Jr. is incredibly charismatic as David and we, along with Maggie, truly believe that he could be a star. He and Johnson share undeniable chemistry right from their very first scene.
Directed by Nisha Ganatra, it should be no surprise that The High Note is such a pleasant watch. Last year, Ganatra helmed Late Night, an underseen Emma Thompson/Mindy Kaling film that shares a similar sense of optimism. Both films feature a powerful older woman on the decline and a young, talented, bright-eyed woman who admires her and wants to help rejuvenate her career while also making her own dreams come true. Like Late Night, The High Note is able to overcome the familiarity by sheer charm. With blockbusters continually getting bigger and louder, it is the smaller movies like this that lean in to their own strengths and come out on top.
“Like Late Night, The High Note is able to overcome the familiarity by sheer charm.”
The movie does get in its own way at times by trying to do too many things. Maggie wants to be a producer, Grace’s fame is slipping away, David is on the rise, Jack is trying to lock Grace in to a Vegas residency that she doesn’t want, Maggie and David become emotionally and romantically entwined – it just becomes too much. It’s not a plot that is hard to understand by any means, but with so many moving parts, sometimes it feels like none of them are explored to their full potential.
For example, there is an incredibly poignant scene where Grace is explaining to Maggie that it’s not easy for a middle aged black woman to remain successful. “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black” It’s a sad reality and Ross delivers this line so matter of factly because she knows it to be true. Her career, for all intents and purposes, is on the decline. And the likelihood of going up from here is slim. Unfortunately, the movie moves on from this almost as quickly as it is brought up so its message, though clear, is a little half baked.
“The movie does get in its own way at times by trying to do too many things.”
Despite my general misgivings, The High Note won me over. It made me happy and sometimes that is all you need. Between the music, the acting, and the unabashed sweetness that this movie contains, it is a shame that it got relegated to VOD, through no fault of its own. It’s not going to change the world but that doesn’t matter. The High Note is a true crowd pleaser and we need those now more than ever.