Synopsis: A superstar singer and her overworked personal assistant are presented with a choice that could alter the course of their respective careers.
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Zoë Chao, Bill Pullman, Eddie Izzard, Ice Cube, June Diane Raphael
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: If everything had gone as planned in 2020, we’d be sitting smack dab in the middle of the start of summer movie season right about now. The April releases of No Time to Die and Mulan would have arrived and Black Widow along with Scoob! would have shown up in May. For this particular weekend we’d be on the cusp of seeing Wonder Woman 1984’s release and that means the talk likely had shifted to the favorite way to combat all the big blockbusters and family friendly animated hyperactive stimuli: the counter-programming. That’s where a movie like The High Note would have entered the conversation and looking over the list of potential releases from back then I can’t think of a title that would have a greater shot to do some business than this one.
Before we take a look at The High Note, we should first go back to last summer and the movie Late Night. Arriving with a heap of good buzz from the Sundance Film Festival where Amazon Studios had bought it for a jaw-dropping $13 million, it was expected to be that counter-programming sleeper hit when it was released in June. Starring Oscar-winner Emma Thompson giving an award-worthy performance, it was an admittedly formulaic comedy written by co-star Mindy Kaling that was still light years better than a number of comedies released in 2019 but it was an unqualified bomb. This set Amazon scrambling (and I’m sure sent some execs packing) and it surely has reshaped the way they bought movies in the future, though to be fair the similar failure of Brittany Runs a Marathon later in the year contributed to Amazon’s buyer’s remorse.
So, now we’re back in 2020 and The High Note has arrived from Focus Features and it’s worth mentioning it’s directed by Nisha Ganatra who also was at the helm for Late Night. Featuring another diverse set of strong co-leads, you could squint and see a lot of similarities between the two films but what The High Note has that Late Night didn’t is some authenticity that helps carry it through it’s more shallow moments. While it’s not going to win any awards for daring originality, there’s something winning about the way it worms into your heart…and your ears.
Superstar singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) hasn’t put out a new record in years, coasting on the success of several repackaged greatest hit CDs and a sold-out touring schedule that keeps her always on the move. That’s just fine by her producer Jack (Ice Cube, Ride Along) who doesn’t want to risk new music from Grace disappointing her loyal fans but perplexes her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson, Suspiria) who knows Grace has more inside her. Maggie wants to produce music, too, and seems to have the talent to back it up. With her good ear and knowledge of Grace the person as well as the singer, she takes a stab at remixing Grace’s album to satisfying, if not career-advancing results.
It’s when Maggie meets singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce, Waves) that she sees the chance to take a step forward and be taken seriously. David’s gifts are raw but with great potential, something that could benefit from Maggie’s guidance…if the two can trust one another to make it work. At the same time, Jack wants Grace to consider a Vegas residency, which would be financially lucrative but gives her the feeling she is being put out to pasture. With Maggie feeling the pull to help David (and herself) advance but also feeling a loyalty to her employer, of which she is also a genuine fan, it creates tension between the two that threatens both their personal and professional relationship.
I could easily see first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson turning these situations into sudsy scrap or going in the other direction and creating developments with little basis in reality. Thankfully, The High Note feels surprisingly grounded and while perhaps holding an outlook on the music industry that’s a bit on the Pollyanna side, still maintains a level degree of authenticity. For example, a meeting between Grace and a pile of young music executives turns uncomfortable and tense when she’s attempts to assert herself and as she explains later to Maggie it’s not just her age or sex but her race that she has to consider when trying to keep her career going. Greeson throws some unexpected curveballs late into the game and, for once, they don’t seem like moments designed for a cheap reaction.
We’ll get to the leads in a minute but Ganatra has surrounded them with an interesting mix of faces, some more successful than others. I especially liked Zoë Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) as Maggie’s wry roommate and could have actually used one or two more scenes with her and for my money you can never have enough Bill Pullman (A League of Their Own) in your film. When he shows up for his brief appearance as Maggie’s dad, you sort of just happily sigh “Of course he’s her dad…of course he is.” There’s a nice little cameo from Eddie Izzard as a rock star Maggie hatches a plot with and an underused June Diane Raphael (Girl Most Likely) as another one of Grace’s assistants. I have to think Raphael’s part was trimmed down in editing because she’s so valuable that to have her in such a nothing role is a waste.
The film lives (thrives, even) on its two leads, with Johnson and Ross playing well together and individually. Once mocked for her time in the Fifty Shades of Grey films, Johnson has proven her naysayers wrong by consistently showing up in interesting roles in intriguing films. While Maggie could have been just another wannabe producer with stars in her eyes and a dream in her heart, Johnson goes the extra mile in making her smart, determined, likable, and willing to work for her passion as well. In a performance that I’m sure would make her legendary Motown singer mother proud, Ross shines as Grace and sings quite well, too. Though it sounds a liiiiiiitle overly autotuned there’s a bounce to her voice that matches her personality. The script has a way of ping-ponging Grace’s personality a little too much at times which creates some dizzyiness on the part of the viewer but Ross is so totally engaging that you won’t notice those nitpicks until far later.
With a handful of well-sung songs performed by the actors and a zippy soundtrack to cover the rest, The High Note should have had a shot at a theatrical run because I’m betting it would have found a small but respectable audience. I also think it would have gone a long way in laying the groundwork for Ross to get some notice as more than just a television actress because she shows here she can handle carrying the duties of a leading lady. In a perfect world, I’d love to see her name stay in the conversation when the Oscars get talked about…while the movie may not be perfectly pitched her performance is what Best Supporting Actress nominations were made for.