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VOD Review: The High Note

May 29, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Directed by Nisha Ganatra, fresh off of helming the superior Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson vehicle Late Night which just came out last year, The Hight Note is a music-themed romantic comedy that follows a mostly predictable path but still features some enjoyable elements.

The film centres around Maggie (Dakota Johnson), the personal assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a massive pop star who hasn’t put out new material in ages and continues to perform the same hit songs for her fans. Her manager (Ice Cube) is trying to get her to sign off on a Vegas residency for a steady source of income, leading to tensions between them.

Maggie is blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of music and has dreams of becoming a producer, secretly doing her own mixes on Grace’s songs in her spare time, and hoping to be the one to help revitalize her career. While The High Note is mostly being sold on the name recognition of Ross, Grace is only half the story, and a good portion of the film actually focuses on the professional and personal relationship that forms between Maggie and David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young musician whom she happens to meet in a grocery store.

Maggie senses that David isn’t living up to his full potential as a singer-songwriter, so passes herself off as a producer in order to work with him. While this storyline has been almost completely left out of the trailers and marketing materials, in some ways it is actually the more interesting and enjoyable part of the film. Harrison Jr., the charismatic young star who burst onto the scene last year with his breakout roles in Luce and Waves, is a hugely appealing presence in the film, and his character is missed when he’s not on screen.

While The High Note was intended for theatres and is only being released digitally in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, VOD is actually a much more suitable home for a movie like this. It’s an imperfect and heavily clichéd film, including a contrived last act twist, and the screenplay by Firoa Greeson at times struggles to find the right tonal balance between broad comedy and more serious drama.

While a friendship does form between them, the working relationship between Grace and Maggie is also somewhat toxic and co-dependent, which gets resolved far too quickly, and the film had room to explore the power and class divides between them. There are also more intriguing themes about racism and sexism in the music industry that the film just sort of skirts around but never fully explores, aside from one moment of truth when Grace addresses the fact that “in the history of music, only five women over forty have ever had a number one hit, and only one of them was black.”

There is a better and shorter movie within the nearly two hour running time that never fully takes centre stage, but the film itself is not unenjoyable to watch. Johnson and Harrison Jr. have delightful chemistry in their scenes together, and in these moments The High Note works as a predictable but fairly charming romantic comedy. The soundtrack also features a handful of original songs that allow Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Diana Ross, to show off her impressive vocal range.

The High Note is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms.

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