Review: The High Note (2020)

The High Note. Directed by Nisha Gantra. Focus Features, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Well, I finally did it. I was not planning on caving, but I paid my twenty American dollars to watch a theatrical release at home. I felt like it was time to test out what is sure to become a norm in the future of the film industry. Though that theatrical feeling cannot be recreated from home (unless you’re rich and have a home theater, in which case, email me, I’m single), The High Note, now available on-demand, provides enough entertainment for an at-home screening.

            The High Note centers on Maggie (Dakota Johnson), the overworked personal assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a superstar trapped in the shadow of her previous success. Maggie, an aspiring producer, uses all of the time she is not working for Grace to remaster Grace’s forthcoming live greatest hits album, as well as to begin producing for David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a talented and mysterious performer. Though marketed as a dual-lead vehicle for its female stars, the script’s conflicts are explored through Maggie’s perspective, which leaves Grace, clearly the more interesting of the two, feeling more like a supporting character than a co-protagonist.

            Unsurprisingly, Ross is the real draw here. Her performance is elegant but vulnerable. She captures the diva-esque mentality of a star removed from reality without losing the humanity within. In addition, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is a star on the rise, and he should be recording his own records like yesterday. The film also provides some delightful supporting performers the chance to do what they do best. Ice Cube, as Grace’s tired manager, is his usual brand of confidence and comedy, and June Diane Raphael’s Gail is my new avatar.

            Though the acting is top-notch, the film fails to really give them the chance to perform due to its reluctance to embrace the musical format. This is a film all about the music industry, about talent, about the art. And yet, nearly every time we’re about to engage with one of the performances, the camera cuts away, worried audiences might shut off for more than a 30-second glimpse of a musical moment. It’s like the musical version of 2014’s Godzilla. How are we supposed to believe that Grace Davis is the voice of a generation if we barely get to hear it? How are we supposed to understand the spectacle of her concerts if we get one brief montage of her doing the same show?

            Luckily, even though the film refuses to engage in musical numbers, it does effectively explore a series of themes about music and entertainment. Perhaps the most interesting of these ideas is what the film has to say about aging in the industry. Throughout the film, we see Grace in her home applying various treatments for skin care and beauty. She uses the time she is not reliving her former success on stage to work on retaining her youth. Though she wants to record a new album, making new art through her current perspective, the industry wants her to only focus on re-performing, rerecording, and remixing her earlier talent. In one boardroom sequence, a table of mostly younger men, flat out do not respond to Grace’s desire to record something new and instead redirect to the idea of a Vegas residency. The film does a great job of conveying entertainment’s desire to contain female musicians to their former glory. The only downside to the thematic work on display is the fact that we engage with it far less than we would if Grace was the true protagonist of the story.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Maybe I’m feeling defensive about this because some of the artists I’ve grown up with are now in the residency phase of their careers (Christina, Britney, etc.), but I do think the residency has progressed far beyond how the film paints it

The Final Tea

            Even though it frustratingly rejects the musical genre, The High Note is solid at-home entertainment.

GRADE: B

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