The Hight Note (2020) Review
A PREDICTABLE YET
“COMFORT FOOD” DRAMEDY
The music industry is a tough business….to say the least. The “rise to stardom” has always been a coveted event for many aspiring talents from on-stage musician / singers to “behind the scenes” music producers. Unfortunately, the road to fame and glory has always been riddled with setbacks and challenges, which can come from several outlets, including record label meddling, poor managers, society controversial, the constant of flux of the changing of the times, or even personal conflicts found with the talent or members of the talent (collectively speaking). Naturally, Hollywood has turned its cinematic lens to focus on such trials and tribulations of making it “big” on the music industry within various facets, including such films like That Thing You Do!, Straight Outta Compton, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, We Are Your Friends, Rocketman, and Jem and the Holograms just to name a few. Now, Focus Features and director Nisha Ganatra present the latest cinematic story within the context of making it in the music industry with the release of The Hight Note. Does the film reach the “high note” of entertainment or is it a flat-out dud of a movie?
In the bustling streets of L.A., Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson) is an assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a popular singer from the 90s era of music who’s still in the spotlight yet can’t figure out the next maneuver in her career. Despite being an “errand” runner for Grace’s every whim and demands, Maggie harbors dreams of moving into music production, working on the Grace’s songs in secret for a special project. However, keeping up with the singer’s constant touring and public image as well as sometimes drawing ire from Grace’s longtime manger, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube), Maggie feels stuck. Enter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young man with a gifted voice, who Maggie accidently encounters in a grocery store and immediately takes a shine to his talents, aiming to shape him into the next big thing in music. Seizing the moment, Maggie begins to work with David in various collaborations in enhance his vocals, but begins to fall for him, which complicates her second-life as a Grace’s peon, while Grace herself faces opportunity for a Las Vegas residency…. but is it the right move?
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Its really as clear as day that making it “big” is quite hard, especially when considering moving into the public eye and facing scrutiny and criticism by both public as well as corporate interest. As I said, the music industry has definitely churned out plenty of big-time stars throughout the various decades and speaking to the “times” of music within that era. However, some artists struggle to find their proper footing; becoming one-hit wonders of a kind (we all seeing them come and go) as well as never making the jump to the next “thing” in evolving their music with the current changes of popularity and of music itself. This, of course, see the “rise and fall” of talented individuals who can’t cope with the industry’s demands and seeing that their once “dream” isn’t quite what they envisioned. As mentioned, several movies have touched upon this notion, with some being mediocre in its narrative and / or acting, but still retains the fundamentals of the reality of making it “big” in the music industry. I certainly could go on and on about this, but I’ll just leave it at that.
Naturally, this brings me back around to talking about The High Note, a 2020 dramedy endeavor that seeks to examine the trails and tribulations of working in the music industry. To be honest, I really didn’t hear much about this movie when it was first announced. I think I might’ve heard that actress Dakota Johnson was going to be attached to the project, but that was about it. However, the film’s movie trailer was being played constantly whenever I went to see the movies (during the 20 minute “coming attractions” preview). So, I became quite familiar with the film and I do have to say that I was quite interested in seeing it. Kind of looked interesting with a good cast and comforting premise, but wasn’t on my “must see” movies to get excited about. Still, I was planning on seeing The Hight Note when it was originally supposed to be released in theaters on May 8th, 2020, but was delayed due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of this, the movie was moved to a May 29th, 2020 for a selective movie theaters release as well as a Premium VOD release on streaming services. I did get a little bit busy when this movie was released during its time, so I decided to finally check out The High Note a few months after its released…. when it was available to rent at a lower price. So… what did I think of it? Well, it was good as a fluff entertainment piece. Despite its predictable nature, The High Note still provides enough wholesome experience to make the film enjoyable from start to finish. It’s doesn’t cover any new ground or anything, but still finds a blends familiar nuances that’s comforting to watch.
The Hight Note is directed by Nisha Ganatra, whose previous directorial works include such films like You Me Her, Transparent, and Late Night. Given her track record of past project endeavors, Ganatra seems like a suitable choice in directing such a project like The High Note; approaching the feature as a type of “love note” to music lovers / enthusiasts out there as well as fans of the lighthearted dramedy productions. In a nutshell, Ganatra’s direction for the film is quite enjoyable; making the movie have an pleasant feeling that easy to watch and easy to follow, but still makes the presentation entertaining and lyrical from onset to conclusion. Thematically, The High Note gives a good dose of insight into the music industry on all the struggles, pitfalls, and decisions that a person might have to face. I could really go on and on about this particular subject by going on a tangent of “making it big” in the music business industry as well as corporate greed, and artist managers not having the best interest of their clients, but you get the gist of it all. Suffice to say, this particular aspect definitely shines through in the movie and highlights what many have faced and probably will face during their careers in showbiz. All in all, The High Note is sort of a “comfort food” watch as it really doesn’t offend anyone and it is quite easy to digest from start to finish.
Presentation-wise, The High Note hits all the right visual cues and notes throughout its runtime. Nothing truly standouts in the way of becoming the “big thing” of filmmaking techniques or in cinematography, but the film certainly meets the industry standard of similar movie endeavors out there. Of course, the movie’s set designs, locales, and costume department make a strong case for visual flair in the feature and certainly succeed in that regard; creating the lavishing (glitz, glamour, and grit) in the L.A. scene. Thus, the filmmaking “behind the scene” members like Erka Toth (art direction), Theresa Gulsesrian (production design), and Jenny Eagan (costume designs) should be noted in elevate the film with its pleasant / appealing background and setting nuances. While film composer work by Amie Doherty gives the movie a smoothness and appealing tone with emotional beats and lightheartedness, the actual music soundtrack for The High Note is the real winner, with the film featuring plenty of classic hit songs and its original numbers for both Ross (Grace Davis) and Harrison Jr. (David Cliff) characters respectfully. In truth, the movie seems more “invested” in its music than trying to pad out its story / characters, but more on that below. Regardless, the music soundtrack for the project is great and I do recommend buying / downloading the film’s soundtrack.
Unfortunately, The Hight Note is quite the most innovated project and is held back by its own conventions of storytelling and of where the feature focuses on in certain areas. What do I mean? Well, for starters, the movie is quite predictable from start to finish. Regardless if one watches this movie or not, its quite clear from the film’s movie trailer on where the movie is heading and becomes quite conventional throughout its narrative progression. Don’t get me wrong, the story is still good…in a way of “comfort food” storytelling, which definitely plays upon the featured strengths. The downside to this, however, is in how its all presented as the narrative / script for The High Note is quite formulaic and predictable to the touch. Even in the film’s first act, which sets up everything, its very apparent as to where everything is going (i.e. pitfalls and triumphs). Thus, the script handling by Flora Greeson could’ve been better shaped in the writer’s room and could’ve been a little more livelier in how its presented rather choosing the more conventional path. In addition, Ganatra doesn’t really challenge the movie as much as it could’ve been, but the director seems to choose to keep The High Note in a safe area and doesn’t really color outside the lines in the ways and means of executing the project. Again, the movie isn’t disappointing, but just one that takes a safer approach in ways of predictability storytelling.
Another contributing factor is that Ganatra seems to make a lot of the film’s characters rather broad. What’s given is okay, but the various characters throughout the movie, despite being played by good acting talents (more on that below), feels a bit shallow in certain areas in the film and (as mentioned above) feel conventional as if Ganatra / Greeson are just make these fictional characters rather formulaic, including a shallow-esque romance between two characters. Its definitely admirable work on both their parts, but what might sound good on paper, but really translate well to on-screen. Also, the film’s pacing is a bit off in several main areas and, while its not a complete deal-breaker for me, it does become a bit distracting a few times; making the film have a sluggish feeling, especially during the second act.
The cast of The High Note is pretty good, with most (if not all) give solid performances within their respective characters. The downside, however, is that their particular characters are…in a nutshell… rather generic / stock-like, with (again) the film’s script being restricted in making them feel genuine. That being said, some of these characters can be overlooked to the elevation of the acting talents that play them. This perhaps most notable within the film’s main protagonist character of Maggie Sherwoode, who is played by actress Dakota Johnson. Known for her roles in the Fifty Shades franchise as well as Bad Times at the El Royale and How to be Single, Johnson, while not considered as a “A-list” actress, has certainly proven herself to be a capable actress in both the comedic timing as well as developing some drama whenever called upon. Thus, Johnson is great at Maggie, a character who certainly wants to make her mark on the music industry as well as trying to find herself, with the actress channeling that youthful and aspiring eagerness as well as her own vulnerability to the role. However, the character of Maggie is rather generic and kind of gets lost within the background of the story a few times. Its not a bad character per say, but just one that many of us have seeing down before in similar projects and the script doesn’t elevate her beyond the predictable path of aspiring talent. Still, Johnson is good in the role.
Who actually stands out the most in the movie is the character of Grace Davis, an aged musical artist sensation and who is played by actress and singer Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of fame musical artist Diana Ross. Known for her roles in Black-ish, Girlfriends, and Labor Pains, Ross is effectively good in the movie and is absolutely perfect in the role for Grace Davis. She completely nails all the snarky “upper crust” behavior of a famous music artist as well as hitting all the right notes within the comedic dialogue lines her character is given. Plus, her singing is quite well, which definitely is a big part of the movie and Ross hits that one out of the park as well; making Grace a sensational within her vocal performances. The only part that I didn’t like was that the film’s movie trailer made Grace Davis more of a bigger part of The High Note, while in the actual movie…. her role is delegated to a large supporting one. Kind of thought there was gonna be more about her and not so much on Maggie’s struggle to become a producer in the music industry. Still, regardless of that, Ross is perhaps the best acting talent in the film and her character of Grace Davis is the most memorable character in the film.
Speaking of talent, actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce and Waves) is good in the role of David Cliff, an unknown music talent that Maggie discovered and begins a romance with. The downside, however, is that the character is rather forgetful, despite becoming entangled in the main plot (i.e. Maggie). True, Harrison Jr.’s acting is solid and his music vocals are effective, but his character gets pushed aside and does seem more of an afterthought. Plus, as I might have mentioned above, the romance aspect between Maggie and David is rather feigned and rather thinly-sketched, despite the attempts made by both Johnson and Harrison Jr. to make it work. It just doesn’t work quite well.
In more supporting character roles, rapper musician / actor Ice Cube (21 Jump Street and Ride Along) brings his usual humor / gravitas mixture to the film’s proceedings in the role of Grace’s manager, Jack Robertson, while character actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day and While You Were Sleeping) gives a fine small performance in the role of Maggie’s father, Max. The rest of the cast, including actress Zoe Chao (Love Life and Downhill) as Maggie’s friend Katie, actress June Diane Raphael (Long Shot and The Disaster Artist) as Gail, musician DJ Diplo (i.e. Thomas Pentz) as Richie Williams, and actor Eddie Izzard (Abominable and Victoria and Abdul) as Dan Deakins, give smaller performances in the movie (maybe one or two scenes at the most), but certainly are solid in their respective roles throughout.
You got to start at the bottom before you make your way to the top as Maggie Sherwoode soon learns this motto in her path to make it “big” in the music industry in the film The High Note. Director Nisha Ganatra latest project takes a focus on the music industry and the twists and turns involving of both getting into the “business” as well as navigating the pitfalls and curveballs that life throws at a person. Despite the movie struggling within its predictable format and a few undercooked ideas / characters, the film still finds a stead rhythm with its presentation, easygoing narrative musical representations of its soundtrack, and solid acting. Personally, I thought this movie was good-ish…if a such a word exists. It wasn’t revolutionary in its telling and it could’ve been better, but, for the most part, the film was entertaining none the less; holding my interest throughout. Basically, it’s a comfort food / fluff of a feature film…. easy to digest and to watch. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a solid “rent it” or just simply wait for it to come to TV as it will probably be on a lot of TV channels in a year or two. It’s one of those types of movies. In the end, The High Note doesn’t really “break the mold” of dramedy / rom-com architypes, but rather reinforces those ideals, which results in an endeavor that, while not perfect, works better than it should.
3.5 Out of 5 (Rent It)
Released On: May 29th, 2020
Reviewed On: September 18th, 2020
The High Note is 113 minutes and is rated PG-13 for strong language and suggestive references