In times of great stress like these, it’s important to remember what gets us through: art. Art, of course, can be anything from clothes, food, movies, projects, music, and more. They are the things which bring us joy and help fight back the darkness and frustration of uncertainty. It’s easy to forget that the art we ingest doesn’t just appear, but is crafted, cultivated, and shaped until it’s ready to be shared. You wouldn’t wear an unfinished garment or an ill-prepared meal, yet we tend to think that our entertainment doesn’t follow the same path. Perhaps this is why The High Note, from director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and writer Flora Greeson, strikes such a chord as the relationship between art and artist as commodity is the most prominent aspect of the rather low-stakes character-driven dramedy. Or it could be that the cast has amazing chemistry, that the cinematography is lush and somehow dreamy, and that the music absolutely bops. One thing is for sure, The High Note is an undeniable surprise that will elevate your soul as it helps dispel the gloom of reality for a solid two-hour romp.
The High Note is a story of two lives hitting a cross-roads at the same time. The first is superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), who hasn’t released an original album in over a decade and whose longtime manager, Jack (Ice Cube), wants her to accept a 10-year residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The second is Grace’s assistant Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), whose new dream of becoming a producer begins to take shape when she meets unknown talent David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Each face a defining choice in their respective lives that neither is brave enough to make, but if you’re going to stand in the spotlight, you better be ready to push back against the darkness.
One way to look at The High Note is as a happier A Star is Born. A still highly-regarded performer crosses paths with someone just beginning, their stories intertwining for a brief period. Let me assuage your nerves now, that’s about where the similarities end (outside of a truly banging soundtrack). The High Note is a deeply layered and equally satisfying film that also works as a simple low-key, low-stress dramedy. The fact that it can be read either way speaks a great deal to Greeson’s script, her first for a feature. Evidently Greeson is not only an avid music lover, something the four central figures share in common, but is experienced in the realm of being an assistant. For anyone who has spent any kind of time in the entertainment industry, the authenticity is undeniably present: the loneliness, the drive, the passion, and the pressure for talent and their closest employees. Through the writing and Ross’s performance of Grace’s complexity on screen, the battle between remaining relevant and the fear that you’re not, while also battling systemic ageism, gender bias, and the onslaught of attention fame brings is balanced perfectly. She is someone who’s earned her right and privilege, yet backs down when she’s not being heard because she believes there’s nothing else to do but become the commodity they think she is. On the other side, Maggie is equally flawed: full of knowledge but not enough wisdom. It doesn’t matter if you’re right or not, if you’ve got the talent or not, if you don’t know how the system works and how to work within it. This isn’t to say that the system is perfect as is, but there’s a way to communicate within your ranks and Johnson nails how Maggie can examine, dissect, and construct her way through music but isn’t so good at communicating it. This, of course, could just be Ganatra’s way of conveying how women are often shouted down for speaking their opinions publicly, something which Ross’s performance as Grace makes glaringly obvious to the audience. If so, it gets back to the subtext of the female role in society. If not, it is just another similarity between the two characters at different points in their career.
If the notion of exploring these deep-seeded issues sounds like an absolute downer, don’t worry, there’re plenty of laughs to be found. Without any amount of stretching the imagination or breaking the rules of reality, The High Note surprises again and again with its comedic timing. Whether it’s someone slowing appearing out of focus behind another or an unsuspecting knock interrupting a serious moment, humor arrives often from the very normal and mundane things in life. In fact, for a dramedy which mines the complexity of human dynamics, the manner in which The High Note frequently cuts through the bullshit is refreshing. In fact, it has one of the more satisfying character conflict resolution scenes in recent memory. It’s simple, cleanly handled from a narrative perspective, and executed brilliantly by the cast. Considering I had the ability to watch it more than once, I took the opportunity because it’s a scene loaded with emotional power without the amount of charge you’d expect, but then, there’s a lot about The High Note that sets forth a certain expectation that Ganatra and Greeson avoid frequently.
Everyone in The High Note is perfectly cast. The first thought when you hear that Ross is playing a superstar is “of course!” because of her mother, yet Ross had never sung before in a role. Additionally, Ross, herself, has stated that while her experience growing up in the industry certainly colored the performance, nothing about Grace is based on her mother. With that cleared up, Ross absolutely shines as Grace. An actor needs to convey a certain gravitas that a superstar like Grace Davis would possess, while also offering something more human to demonstrate that Grace isn’t what everyone thinks she is. Ross proves quickly that she’s more than up to the task. As her equal and opposite, Johnson, who killed it in 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, does it again, effortlessly nails the tightrope that is comedy and drama. She captures the hunger of someone who doesn’t know better, while being constantly terrified and insecure about going for it. Though smaller in roles, both Harrison Jr. and Cube are fantastic. Harrison Jr.’s proved with roles in Luce, The Photograph, It Comes at Night, and more that he’s a talent not to be ignored. Consider his role as David as just more proof that this is only the start of an incredible career. Cube is clearly not at the start of his career, yet he’s still managing to surprise. Much like Ross with Grace, Cube infuses Jack with a great deal of layers. Jack may not win any popularity contests, but there’s no denying the character’s loyal intent which Cube brings forth with ease and, honestly, quite a bit of charm. Oh, and not for nothing, look for scene-stealing appearances by Eddie Izzard (Ocean’s 12) and June Diane Raphael (Long Shot).
There’s certainly an argument that The High Note is a little too perfect, a little too neat in its conclusion. I disagree with that notion completely. While the environment of the music industry can feel high stakes, everything about The High Note is profoundly grounded in the characters. As such, the ultimate conclusion feels deeply earned and emotionally satisfying, so much so that I was in tears through the credits. If there is something to be upset about or frustrated with regarding The High Note, it’s that audiences won’t be able to see it in theaters but at home on VOD. From the gorgeous cinematography from DP Jason McCormick (Booksmart) that somehow captured that sense of being up in the clouds while keeping feet on the ground, to the fantastic songs that are peppered throughout the film, a theater is distinctly built to create transportive experience that homes typically can’t recreate. And The High Note is transportive. Even if for only a brief period of time, Ganatra removes us from our living rooms and puts us into a place that’s familiar, even if more distant these days; a place where we can come together, connect through art, and share it together. As was recently stated regarding things today by fellow critic Courtney Howard, “It is effin bleak out there. Whatever is connecting with us must be valued.” So I shall cling to this film for the joy it brings and hope that it does the same for you.
Available on VOD May 29th, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.