Upbeat and entirely pleasant, The High Note is a showbiz comedy-drama about a musician’s personal assistant who strives to become a music producer. It ticks a lot of boxes, from focusing on the nostalgic value of music, personal loss, dreams, and the struggles of show business. One familiar with this brand of film can pretty much imagine the beats of the story. The struggle to cope with the star’s personality. A career breakthrough. A stumble that drives everyone around the protagonist away. The return of everyone and a happy ending commences. It is very much the modern music drama structure nowadays; one can see the recent works of John Carney as a similarity as well as many music biopics. Those genre story beats are punctuated by killer recording sessions, singing, and well-written pop songs. In essence, The High Note is what it is and one’s mileage will vary based upon how in tune a viewer is to the genre’s tendencies.
Perhaps that description is a bit of a spoiler, but The High Note does add a couple of wrinkles that make it interesting: to call its plot a spoiler would be a disservice to the overall ride. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, the film may ardently follow the expected story beats and telegraphs them all but the feeling it cultivates is what makes it worth watching. One is here to see Dakota Johnson as personal assistant Maggie, the prowess of Tracee Ellis Ross as star Grace Davis, and rising acting star Kelvin Harrison Jr. as up-and-coming singer David Cliff. In that regard, The High Note never falters. Recording sessions between Maggie and David are benefited by Johnson and Harrison Jr.’s chemistry, his singing, and the infectious music they create together. It strikes a relaxing, pleasing vibe that is like chicken noodle soup for the soul. Harrison Jr.’s David Cliff has a very modern, radio-friendly sound but genuine talent that backs up the likely stardom in his character’s future. His casual skill and passionate vocal stylings – his performance of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” is absolutely electric – is awe-striking to watch.
Tracee Ellis Ross never falters as Grace Davis, capturing her fears and insecurities so well – even when Grace is being unreasonable to Maggie – while hitting the high notes and emotional tones so well in her music. The songwriting for her is quite impressive, especially as Grace treads into new material that captures her fears over romance and aging with Ross displaying the emotion with considerable gravity. Dakota Johnson may not get to sing much here – though Maggie does harmonize with David once – but her great screen presence, strong delivery, and chemistry with her fellow actors makes this yet another impressive performance from her. Maybe not much heavy lifting for any of the cast, but they more than make the most of and elevate the material before them.
Part of the film’s strong crowd pleasing appeal is its romance as well as its comedy. Zoë Chao is an affable personality as Maggie’s surgeon roommate Katie. There is some dry wit here, especially when Harrison Jr. is involved with this being maybe his safest role, but one of his most impressive. Most would agree he is a star in the making, but this role felt like a true “movie star” performance from him. There is just an “it” factor about Harrison Jr.’s performance, perhaps because he is able to sing so well and flex some of his musical talents as well as his sharp comedic delivery, raw humanity in dramatic scenes, and charm in romance, but it is even more than anything of those pieces. He has had great roles before and The High Note is hardly his greatest, but this does feel like one of those roles that highlights the depth to his range and is a precursor to something truly special from him. When together with Johnson, the romance scenes strike all the right notes while with Ross, The High Note introduces an interesting angle that proves quite heartwarming. The look in their eyes together as they sing, holding hands as they sing a powerfully written duet with great close-ups on both of them to capture that bond they share on stage, cultivates a feeling that pulls on one’s heart strings.
Beyond its crowd pleasing qualities, The High Note is a mixed bag and not just for its typical structure. The idea of a white woman igniting the creative passion of an older black woman while introducing Sam Cooke to a young black man is… interesting. It feels like a dated element to the story that partially reflects Maggie’s passion and knowledge, but cannot be separated from the racial politics of its characters, something that The High Note is otherwise keenly aware of in show business. Those themes tend to be more successful, focusing on the white businessmen of the music world and the control of Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube) in trying to get her to just settle down. While she wants to write new music, they want her to do a Las Vegas residency, have terrible remixes of her songs, and release a greatest hits albums. The film spells out their reasoning a bit too obviously – she is a woman, older, and black, all of which add to the statistical improbability she will have another number one hit – but presents the self-fulfilling prophecy that derails the career of women like Grace Davis before their time. As with Ganatra’s prior film, Late Night, it is also keenly aware of the struggles of women in show business. Maggie’s every attempt to push her career where she wants it to go is met with a smack down by the patriarchy, all while those same men pretend to care about lifting up women in the music industry. Portrayed on-the-nose as well, it is nonetheless a biting criticism that adds weight to Maggie’s struggle to achieve her lifelong dream of producing music.
Those themes, the film’s comedy, romance, and great music, all add to a satisfying if unexceptional film. Content to ride through the genre’s tropes, but adding inspiration with its well-written music and affecting character arcs/relationships, The High Note is truly an uplifting film despite any of its issues. As a whole, it has enough sweet, sentimental, and uplifting beats that it leaves one with a goofy smile and a longing to see how the rest of these characters’ journeys played out. Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes the most of his role here, further establishing him as a star now. Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross as well as the rest of the cast – Bill Pullman as a classic music lover and radio personality is a great touch – deliver strong performances as well, while the musical work from Harrison and Ross make them a perfect fit for this story. The High Note may not be hitting its toughest notes with perfection, but it has the heart to make one not notice too much and be willing to forgive some of its missteps.