The High Note (2020)
You’ve Got to Start at the Bottom Before You Take It to the Top
The latest music-centered drama-romance The High Note is serviceably pleasant yet unremarkable. It essentially posits the question, ‘What if there were an entire movie dedicated around Anna Kendrick’s Beca’s subplot in 2015’s Pitch Perfect 2?’ because presumably, that’s something we’ve all wanted to see. The High Note, which tries to give us some insight into the life of a musician of color, is somewhat underwhelming thanks to its generic plot and uncompelling protagonist, despite the surefire talent of its black stars, who can really hit those high notes.
The film follows Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), an overworked longtime personal assistant to legendary R&B sensation Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Diana Ross). Despite not having released a new album for about a decade, Grace still has a thriving career touring and traveling the world with her A1 act. Grace’s long-serving manager, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube doing his usual shtick), thinks that she’s past her due date and hopes that the superstar singer would accept a stable Las Vegas show, which involves permanent residency, performing her greatest-hits while continuing to release live albums or dropping modern club remixes rather than recording anything new. Grace is constantly reminded of just how difficult it is for women ‘of a certain age,’ such as herself, to gain traction with fresh tunes. This is based on fact — in the history of music, only five women over the age of 40 have ever had a number one hit, and only one of them was black, the late great Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. However, Maggie, who’s an aspiring music producer, mixing Grace’s songs in her limited spare time, believes otherwise and is pushing for Grace to succeed with new material, but she’s frequently scolded by Robertson and lectured for overstepping the boundaries every time she tries to speak up.
In a chance encounter while out grocery shopping one day, Maggie bumps into promising singer-songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and the pair strike up a lively conversation over their shared love of music. Maggie is perplexed when she learns that David doesn’t know who influential black music icon Sam Cooke is; minutes later, however, she finds him performing a live version of a Cooke track to a small audience just outside the store. After the initially reluctant Maggie attends a party at David’s home following a push from her roomie Katie (Zoë Chao), the two very quickly hit it off, developing a natural friendship with undeniable chemistry. She also discovers that David, who she’d met slumming it as a parking lot muso, is quite gifted, not to mention wealthy and charming.
Impressed by his killer voice and raw talent, Maggie lies about being a professional music producer and offers to be David’s coach by helping him get over his recording studio jitters and assisting him in compiling his very first album. Tired of living in the shadow of Grace Davis, Maggie keeps her PA gig on the low, but the film’s predictable setup paves the way for an obviously turbulent future when Maggie’s true credentials are eventually let out of the bag.
Highlighting Hollywood’s long-standing grievance with middle-aged female artists, who are often deemed too old to be sexy or bankable, as well the representation gap on the music charts, the screenplay by newcomer Flora Greeson (inspired by her own days working as an assistant for Universal Music in NYC) takes few chances; although admirable in its intent, the film’s flat, formulaic structure ultimately drags The High Note down. On a better note, the piece, technically, is beautifully shot by cinematographer Jason McCormick, who worked on the admirable Booksmart (2019). McCormick applies a warm color palette reinforcing the up-beat, easy-to-watch nature of the movie. Moreover, the filmmakers capture the adrenaline and energy of Davis’ explosive on-stage charisma — she looks and feels very much like a bona fide music star.
The costume designs by Jenny Eagan, Knives Out (2019), are also excellent and work to reinforce the characters’ psyche. Davis is often seen in outfits that radiate confidence, her clothes harkening back to the glamour of the 1940s and 1970s. One particular getup is a neat throwback to her mother’s 1985 ‘Chain Reaction’ video. Davis is a nice contrast to Johnson’s Maggie, who pretty much wears functional tees and jeans, whereas David Cliff’s shirts give us an indication of the way he likes to live, loud.
The High Note is at its zenith when Black-ish (2014-20) star Tracee Ellis Ross is front and center. Ross has an amazing screen presence and wholly sells her character, a high maintenance pop-diva who’s won eleven Grammys and zips around the globe in a private jet yet is fighting to remain relevant. Ross even gets to show off her amazing pipes with the track ‘Love Myself,’ which serves as the movie’s lead single — watching her perform is genuinely captivating. Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash (2015), on the other hand, plays what is emerging as her go-to one-note character — the shy and sweet white girl and thus comes off as incredibly uninteresting when compared to her costar. Elsewhere, the multitalented Kelvin Harrison Jr., from It Comes at Night (2017), gives a truthful and grounded turn as budding muso David — this guy can both sing and act. The 26-year-old star really sells David’s numerous stumbling blocks and determination to persevere, while his pleasing and authentic chemistry with Johnson’s Maggie helps sell their romantic subplot. Lastly, look out for a third-act appearance by Mr. Bill Pullman, sporting a cleaner version of his shaggy Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) beard, which, aside from Maika Monroe, was pretty much the best part of that movie — thankfully, that’s not the case here.
Although commendable in its efforts to explore ageism and minority representation in music, we’ve seen this kind of story before, so The High Note could have aimed a little higher or hit a little harder in its messages. Notwithstanding, this is an uplifting, inspirational, and joyous film, and it’s probably what we need during this pandemic, despite being relatively trite at times. So, give it a spin, even if merely for the radiant music and worthy performances — it’ll certainly raise your spirits.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by S-Littner