I’m at the point now where it’s getting more and more difficult to say the same thing about lockdown and watching things at home in different ways over and over again, so let’s just get down to it shall we? Previously scheduled for a theatrical release on May 8th, Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note became another relatively high profile film victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, settling instead for a May 29th VOD drop that I could enjoy under my weighted blanket (highly recommend) at home!
The film tells that story of Maggie Sherwoode, an aspiring music producer who currently works as personal assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), one of the most famous and beloved music divas on the planet. Entering into a new phase of her career and with the prospect of a repetitive Las Vegas residency looking, Grace is looking for a new direction, and Maggie wants to be the force behind it.
Guys, let me tell you something. This, this right here, this is a GOD DAMN GUILTY PLEASURE. I’ll admit that I came to The High Note with low expectations overall despite a good looking cast, and I’m delighted to report that although the film is cheesy and trope filled, I had a great flipping time with it. Not so much a musical as a music centric film with handful of performances throughout, the movie caters to the kind of music that I like to listen to in my real life, with (although admittedly a little ‘shiny’ and manufactured feeling) nods to the soul and R&B that form the backbone of my personal taste.
Haters will disregard The High Note as nothing more than a glorified, higher budget life time type of movie, but do you know what? It really felt like exactly the kind of thing I needed to see right now. The story exists within a universe that feels pretty, and cool, and clean, and it provides a little escapism with some genuinely memorable and fun songs along the way. There is a stretch in the first third of the film where I was genuinely worried that a ‘white saviour’ type of arc was building, but in one of the plots more dramatic and poignant moments, Maggie’s white privilege is checked and addressed in exactly the type of way that the viewer is desiring.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that The High Note is anything close to a classic, but in my opinion, it is far, far more enjoyable that a lot of critics and snobs might be anticipating. Some of the jokes don’t hit, at almost two hours it’s probably about 25 minutes too long for this kind of movie, but at the end of the day, I’ve listened to the soundtrack about three times since Monday. I’m not even joking.
My vague memory of my only experience with the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise (Fifty Shades Of Grey, if you’re interested) is that Dakota Johnson was the only remotely impressive thing about it, and she went on to make a fan of me with 2018’s Suspiria. As the naturally talented and musically minded Maggie, Johnson is probably as light and comedic as I have seen her. There is a Kristen Stewart-eqsue dead pan quality to everything that she does, and I can sense it works for some people and not for others. There are definitely a few times throughout the narrative where Johnson’s energy doesn’t feel like it quite matches up with what is going on around here, but for the most part, I enjoyed her performance.
Illuminating the screen whenever she’s on it is the glorious Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis. In a role like this it’s hard not to think of comparisons with Ross’s real life mother, the legendary icon Diana Ross, and it would be impossible not to think that Ellis Ross wouldn’t have taken a few things when you have such irresistible source material at your disposal! Her singing is great, she carries herself like an authentic diva, and her comedy chops are well established at this point. Tracee Ellis Ross hasn’t been given nearly as much big screen love as her talent deserves, but I have no doubt there is a lot more to come.
Smaller supporting roles are played by the likes of Ice Cube, Bill Pullman and Eddie Izzard, all to completely fine effect. Kelvin Harrison Jr. as unsigned singer and Maggie’s love interest David Cliff is a breath of fresh air with his smooth musical talents; they share a pleasing chemistry. One glaring annoyance, however, is the criminal underuse of June Diane Raphael. Raphael plays Grace’s ditsy friend/housekeeper Gail, and whilst the character is perfectly fine and perfectly funny, any fan of Grace & Frankie will know that June Diane Raphael is a comedy powerhouse. She should have been given, much, much more to do in probably a better role.
Overall, I’m pleased to say that The High Note was a massively pleasant surprise for me. Sure, it’s a fluffy music based movie with some romantic comedy elements and some buddy movie elements, but there is just something about it that completely won me over. Worth the price of admission alone to see Tracee Ellis Ross in the kind of movie star leading lady role that she deserves.