Depending on who you talk to, there have either been not enough movies out to see this year or too few. Even without standard theaters being active, there’re still drive-ins, broadcast, and streaming options, many of which the studios have been getting creative utilizing in order to get their films seen. One such film got shifted to a Premium VOD release and the lack of theatrical experience continues to bum me out as I jam out to the soundtrack filled with new songs, cover of a classic, and more: director Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note. For such a low stakes character drama, it’s a film that pulls you in thanks to charming performances and a narrative that’s incredibly universal even as it’s totally specific.
Set within a pseudo-fictional version of Los Angeles, The High Note is the story of two women at a cross-roads in their professional lives: the legendary diva Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) and her assistant Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson). Feeling the pressure of not having released an album of new music in a decade, plus her manager Jack (Ice Cube) pushing her to set up a residency in Las Vegas, Grace questions whether she wants to settle into the monotony of performing the same show night after night or if she has anything original left to say. Meanwhile, Maggie’s desire to help Grace develop the best version of a live album launches her onto the unexpected path of wanting to produce music professionally, beginning with a singer she stumbles upon, David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Each woman knows that she has something brewing underneath, but can they take the first step to make it happen? Or will they be kept in place by fear?
For a complete spoiler-free experience, check out the VOD review.
When The High Note first dropped, calling it a breath of fresh air was an understatement. You know from the opening of the film that the entire experience is going to be one exploring the relationship of these two women and that things will end up ok. It’s signaled via the high-energy montage of news events detailing Grace’s musical career before it’s revealed that the music we’re hearing is being mixed by Maggie. A positive vibe-infused opening with a taste of the music to come indicates that even though there may be some rough patches for these characters, they’ll eventually find their way back together. That coming back together seemed a little too easy, a little too out of the blue, for many critics, but I felt like it was right in line with what had been teased out throughout the film. Honestly, I was so captivated by the performances and the approach of first-time writer Flora Greeson’s story that the revelation that David is Grace’s estranged son took me by surprise. The handling of that revelation within the context of what the audience had seen of the characters up until then made a great deal of sense. Of the several moments in the film that evoked great joy (Eddie Izzard’s brief scene where he references Ocean’s 11 (2001) and then agrees to go along with Maggie’s plan being two big ones), the sequence in which Grace first comes to Maggie before David arrives, a slow yet emotionally satisfying snowball of comedy and pathos, is the top moment of the entire film. It’s not the soap opera revelation you might think and is played with real significance, even if it seems to go perhaps too quickly for most audiences. It’s likely because that scene of conflict resolution works so strongly for me that the final moments of The High Note — first Grace and David performing “Like I Do” together before transitioning into Grace and Maggie working in the studio together — hits me so deeply. Understated as both moments are, they align perfectly with the opening of the film: two women connected by their love of music.
If you, too, found yourself absolutely charmed by The High Note, then the home release is going to delight you. First up, nearly 30 minutes of deleted scenes and alternate takes from the entire central cast and supporting players. Sorry, this does not mean more Diplo, but definitely more Izzard. Honestly the scene that’s cut featuring Izzard’s male version of Grace, Dean Deakins, would’ve been really interesting as both a set-up for the scene that comes later which I reference above, but would’ve given Grace someone not within her entourage to bounce her concerns off of. Primarily that person is Maggie and Maggie is ill-equip to really help in any way. Maggie’s too inexperienced, to idealistic to understand how the music industry works and Jack is too concerned with keeping both himself and Grace afloat to really listen to what Grace wants. Dean has no dog in the fight and their conversation, albeit brief, adds some nice color for Grace to consider. Mixed within the deleted scenes are a few more scenes with Zoë Chao’s Katie and June Diane Raphael’s Gail, each which give the mostly comic-relief characters a few more scenes to establish a presence. Once you’re doing gobbling those up, head over to the “Like I Do” music video, which is a mixture of scenes from the film, as well as behind the scenes footage. It’s a strong showstopper for the film and makes for a nice warm visual experience. Earlier I mentioned the montage that opened The High Note. Well you can now get a longer look at it via the “Making a Legend” 4-minute mockumentary in which you’re given more history on Grace, as well as testimonials from the cast in-character, including Diplo’s Richie.
The last bonus feature is a five-minute featurette titled “The Dream Team,” offering the audience a more straight-forward look behind the curtain at the making of the film. For folks that love the music, they’ll be treated to a brief introduction of Sarah Aarons, the songwriter behind several of the songs in The High Note. Of the other pieces of interesting information that come from the brief featurette, there are two that stand out above the rest. The first is that Ross was tracking the script for some time before landing the role. As someone who had never sung professionally before joining The High Note, seeking out a role which requires the audience to believe in the strength of the singing as well as the performance speaks to Ross’s commitment to pushing herself beyond her comfort. Her lack of experience would be concerning until anyone hears her sing. “Love Myself” and “Stop For A Minute” are two strong singles off a soundtrack that includes Aretha Franklin’s “Share Your Love With Me,” so take that as you will. The second and biggest bombshell-type piece of information coming from the featurette is that this project is Ganatra’s first big studio film. Ganatra’s directed episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Last Man on Earth, and Transparent, not to mention 2019’s crowd-pleasing Late Night, so the fact that she hasn’t been snatched by studios to direct bigger budget projects is a travesty. Perhaps coming off of The High Note that’ll shift.
In my original review, I mentioned how The High Note deserved to be seen in theaters and I continue to stand by that as The High Note would benefit from being seen in Dolby Cinema with surround sound, similar to the experience with the more dour A Star is Born. Cinematographer Jason McCormick (Booksmart) captures that ethereal sense of dreaming while awake to snare the mythical feeling of chasing a dream in L.A.. Personally, I find it quite profound that the whole of The High Note rests on the feeling of not quite making it or of being unsure how to hold onto it. It’s also incredibly wonderful how the entire film focuses on female needs and female relationships. Men are present, but they are not the things the women are defined or “saved” by. Far too often, romantic love is used as a way to push someone forward and, within The High Note, the focus is on something communal and uplifting. When so often it feels like we’re all alone in our own struggles, The High Note comes along with a message of strength through unity. I can get behind that. Probably why The High Note remains in the top ten films I’ve seen in 2020, as of this writing.
The High Note Special Features
- The Dream Team (5:14)
- “Making a Legend” Mockumentary (4:03)
- “Like I Do” Music Video (3:05)
- Deleted Scenes (27:20)
Available on VOD beginning May 29th, 2020.
Available on digital beginning July 7th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning August 11th, 2020.