THE HIGH NOTE: A Mundane Dream

Dreams of success are being dashed everywhere you look right now, or at least they’re being put on hold. It’s happened in both the fictional and real-world of The High Note, as an all-star cast was assembled for a glitzy look at music aspirations that slammed right into the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is one of those movies that was already gearing up for its theatrical release when everything shut down, having claimed a nice slot just before the summer movie season that would’ve let it milk several weeks of solid returns. With all that money already invested, now they’re gambling on the multi-platform VOD release, a move that’s worked well for family films but is still untested for adult audiences.

Oddly, this might be the perfect film to capitalize on the current moment, as its feel-good vibes pop off the screen even in its previews. If you’re anything like me, then you’re not in the mood for anything too stressful or challenging, and that is precisely what The High Note avoids. Instead, it breezes by on piles of charm, and if you end up being interrupted by your family or your phone for a couple of minutes, you won’t have missed anything too important. So in a strangely roundabout way, it might achieve its dreams of being a hit anyway.

The Long Winding Road

Within the film, everyone is dreaming of a bigger and better place in the music industry. Dakota Johnson’s Maggie is grinding it out as an assistant to the legendary singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), but she’s secretly angling to become a producer. Davis herself is at a turning point in her career, having reached an age where female singers are generally put out to pasture (which in this case is a Vegas residency), but the ambitious side of her still wants to be making new music. 

THE HIGH NOTE: A Mundane Dream
source: Focus Features

Both spend the movie actively working their way forward, but they also kind of don’t. It’s all pretty lackadaisical, with breaks for flings with hot young actors and a singalong to “No Scrubs”. And look, there are few faster ways to my heart than Ross and Johnson belting “wanna get with me with no money, oh no”, but like so many of this film’s delightful moments, that goes nowhere.

Surprising, then, that the movie doesn’t feel choppy. That’s something I was actually watching for, as director Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night, didn’t let moments sit long enough to settle. She’s corrected that beautifully with High Note, which despite constantly bouncing from plot line to plot line or just taking a charming time out, none of it feels superficial in a bad way.

THE HIGH NOTE: A Mundane Dream
source: Focus Features

However, despite pretty much all of the movie consisting of fun moments, there’s a bit too much of these trivialities. The movie is just short of 2 hours long, and it really has no business being over 90 minutes. Despite dancing around the lives of producers, performers, and managers, it doesn’t delve into what any of that work entails, nor is it interested in the finer points of being a middle-aged, black, female performer or a black manager or being a young white lady trying to tell those two people about the music they’ve been making for decades. There are a few lines here and there to remind you of these dynamics, but mostly this wants to skate along as an idealized, safe space for these people to work on their goals. And the movie is very good at being that, but it isn’t exactly aware of how little of that is needed.

Basking in the Glow

With all that meandering, High Note actually works best as a hangout movie, and it’s got the requisite perfect cast to suck you in.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is how clever they were about who went where, with pretty much everyone playing a character with a sly parallel to their real life. Johnson’s Maggie is the daughter of a radio DJ, so she’s essentially playing someone trying to break into her parent’s industry (hey, remember how Johnson’s the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson?). Then, of course, Ross is playing someone very similar to her mother, Diana Ross. And Ice Cube is Ross’ manager because he definitely knows about surviving a long time as a performer. 

THE HIGH NOTE: A Mundane Dream
source: Focus Features

Luckily, these aren’t simply bits of stunt casting, as all three have an easygoing chemistry that makes their banter pop and generally sustains this bit of fluff. This is a skill far easier said than done, and it’s not something you’d initially expect them to pull off.

Then there’s the presence of Kelvin Harrison Jr., this movie’s secret weapon that gets pulled out right when you’re beginning to wonder how it will fill its time. He’s been rapidly ascending thanks to movies like Luce and Waves, but this gives him a chance to be a full-blown romantic lead. He shows up as the love interest and potential first client of Johnson, and once again he shows that he can pretty much do anything (including singing).

Complimenting their performances is some pretty astute lighting, which I know isn’t the most exciting thing to point out, but it’s sort of impossible to miss here. There’s a certain kind of lighting that bathes actors in a glossy sheen, giving the film an undeniably safe, unworldly feel. This isn’t real life where you’ll get smacked in the face every once in a while. No, even if someone slip-ups, all their friends rally around them in this glowing paradise, and that is the wonderfully comforting feeling this movie thrives on.

Conclusion: The High Note

The High Note isn’t actually shooting that high, but if you’re willing to meet it at its comfortable middle ground then you’ll have a fine diversion for a few hours. It’s light, charming, and filled with winning performances. Just don’t ask too much of it.

Have you seen The High Note? What did you think? Who gave your favorite performance?

The High Note is out now on-demand in the US.


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