By Elias Savada.
In a pandemic-free world, The High Note would have been playing in movie theaters, maybe to decent business but not stellar success. The coronavirus playbook for every film these days is still questionable as we wait for the “all clear” signal from various authority figures. For now, most distributors figure it’s better to shift their big screen product to the safer video-on-demand models, for their financial and their customers’ (and employees’) health-sensitive protection. As one of those filmgoers, it’ll take more than such light fare as The High Note to get me back into the multiplex.
And thus we have this indie dramedy arriving the Friday after Memorial Day, and yes, I watched this at home and couldn’t get its full impact, but I wonder if it really matters with its modest Hallmark Channel mix of diva-inspired angst and fairy tale dreams. It’s being pedaled as “the feel great movie of the year” but it’s more a feel ok flick. You can judge yourself should you fork over $19.99 to various on-demand outlets for a 48-hour rental starting on May 29th.
Like The Devil Wears Prada – one of its obviously repurposed role models (see also Working Girls) – the film is all about a high octane boss and her fluky, earnest assistant. Replace Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway with Tracee Ellis Ross (back on the screen after six years starring in Black-ish and a lifetime being the daughter of Diana Ross) and Dakota Johnson (known for her Anastasia Steele character in the three Fifty Shades of Grey films) as her naïve, dutiful gopher. Morph the fashion runway into the L.A. music scene and an abundance of concert venues, and Voila! you have Nisha Ganatra’s latest exploration of cultural media and its underpinnings since last year’s Late Night, a commercial dud, but a popular view on Amazon Prime. The screenplay debut from Flora Greeson, a 2015 Cinema Studies graduate from NYU’s Tisch School, offers a clichéd California fantasyland that never digs deep into the music industry, flitting between high-gloss PG-13 parties, comfortably-strong performance footage, and some soap-opera villains.
In this glitter-filled drama Grace Davis (Ross) reigns supreme. She’s won every imaginable music trophy (“Not One. Not Ten. 11 Grammys!”) for Dance Music or Soul and R&B, and the film opens with a glowing tribute to the magnificent diva. As the film opens, you’re under siege from magazine covers and platinum records rushing around the screen as her music blares on the soundtrack. She’s Aretha Franklin on steroids.
Meanwhile, Maggie Sherwood (Johnson), a fledgling record producer wannabe, and Grace’s overworked personal assistant for 3 years, powers about Los Angeles running errands for her boss while juggling three smartphones, a half-eaten sandwich, and being late (six minutes!) for greeting her goddess/diva on a private jet back from Maui.
The apparent music-starved world in The High Note has barely survived without a new Grace Davis record in over a decade. Grace has some career-defining decisions to make, foisted on her by Jack (Ice Cube), her longtime and very overbearing manager who, with the “sparkling water blowhard” recording label execs want to imprison her with a multi-year Las Vegas residency. Frankly, I’m surprised the diva’s occasional distracted driving habits didn’t turn the film into a tragic memorial tribute, but that’s a problem I see in too many movies.
Jack’s also out to “spice up” Grace’s sound with the help of a self-involved re-mix producer, but Maggie manages to get Grace to listen to her after-hours mix of the new album. Guess which version has more heart?
Anyway, using her own spunky I-can-do-that-better attitude, Maggie uses off-the-shelf software to one-up her naysayers who laugh at her meek ambitions. Isn’t that what you expect from this by-the-numbers, lift-me-up drama?
In the first live performance segment, where crowds flower her with love in Dallas, Atlanta, and elsewhere, director Ganatra intercuts rousing, confetti-filled performances of “Stop for a Minute” (one of the half dozen tunes sung by Ross) with harsh rehearsals and post-concert ice baths.
As for Ganatra’s directorial style, it’s all L.A. sunshine with dashes of lifestyles of the rich and famous.
In a handful of side plots, Maggie’s long-time sounding board to bounce her dreams off is her roommate Katie (Zoe Chao) pushing all of Maggie’s dare-to-be-great buttons. The film could have used more characters like this. Yeah, and there’s gotta be a love interest for the overworked gal, right? Enter attractive David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a singer/song-writer who befriends her in a small Laurel Canyon community market. Their relationship is played cute, as Maggie gets to produce his songs later in the film, but not without some bumps along the way. Other cameos provide some brief work for Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman.
Originally called Covers, The High Note never reaches any great cinematic heights, but the music is fine and the ride pleasant enough. The film does definitely go out a hand-me-a-hanky melodramatic note with an arousing duet at the Hollywood Hills Fest.
Despite the cynic in me, dreams do come true!
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).