A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews: The High Note (2020)

“The High Note” was one of the first films to skip it’s intended theatrical release to becoming available on streaming platforms due to the Covid shutdown. Directed with a breezy, fast-paced style by Nisha Ganatra and equipped with a strong, but cliched script. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood story in the vein of the excellent 2018, “A Star Is Born” and it’s closest influence, the superb indie music dramedy “Begin Again”. A traditional story about dreamers, becoming a star, the trappings of fame and how the overwhelming, exhilarating and all encompassing feeling of falling in love can be captured perfectly in a perfectly arranged pop song. Starring Dakota Johnson and “black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross. The two women are surrounded by a powerhouse supporting cast, including: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Ice Cube, Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman. This is a real acting and singing tour de force from Tracee Ellis Ross, who belts out six original tunes in a distinctive and powerful voice. Ross plays Grace like a cinematic version of her own mother, legend Diana Ross. While this is Dakota Johnson’s film and she is absurdly charming in the role. She has great chemistry with the films other actors, but her character is written with one noticeable flaw. While this doesn’t reach the quality of “Begin Again”, it still reaches for the stars and leaves an impressive high note in perfectly capturing the feel of the Laurel Canyon, L.A. music scene.

“The High Note” was a movie I was looking forward to seeing in theaters, instead it became one of the first films to go from a theatrical release to streaming platforms, over the quarantine lockdown. Directed with a breezy and fast-paced style by Nisha Ganatra. Her film from last year, was released as an Amazon Prime Original, called “Late Night” starring Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson. Great movie, that made my list as one of my top 10 best films of last year.

Actually “The High Note” is familiar, almost being a reprise of Ganatra’s film “Late Night”. The only real difference is that it’s set in the music world as opposed to late-night TV, while both are about struggling creative women trying to take their shot at the entertainment business while under the wing of a grumpy, but ultimately supportive older female mentor.

Equipped with a strong, but cliched script by Flora Greeson. “The High Note” is an old-fashioned Hollywood story in the vein of “A Star Is Born” and it’s closest influence, the indie music dramedy “Begin Again”. It follows the traditional story about dreamers and becoming a star, the trappings of fame and how the overwhelming, exhilarating, all encompassing feeling of falling in love can be captured in a perfectly arranged pop song.

“The High Note” stars the adorable Dakota Johnson, the leading lady of the “Fifty Shades Of Grey” trilogy and daughter to actress Melanie Griffith and “Miami Vice” star Don Johnson. While Tracee Ellis Ross of ABC’s “black-ish” fame and daughter of Diana Ross, as the aging pop star. The two women are surrounded by a powerhouse supporting cast, including: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Ice Cube, Eddie Izzard and Bill Pullman. 

Tracee Ellis Ross plays the beloved international aging superstar Grace Davis, who hasn’t had a hit in more than a decade but can still pack arenas by giving the fans what they want: a lavishly produced performance of all those number one singles from her earlier career. Grace travels by private jet, lives in a gigantic mansion and has her needs catered to by everyone around her. Including her business manager of more than 20 years, Jack (Ice Cube); her household manager, Gail June Diane Raphael) and her personal assistant, Maggie, who is played by Dakota Johnson in one of her best and most lovable performances.

Grace is at that stage of her career, where she desperately needs a new hit and she is at the point where accepting a long-term residency at the Colosseum in Caesars Palace is the best way to keep her career afloat. She’ll be paid a boatload of money and she can finally stop the endless cycle of touring from city to city, from country to country. Let the fans come to her.

Maggie knows Grace has been working on some new songs and wants to release the new material, instead of spending the rest of her days belting out her hits every night, but her cynical manager Jack (Ice Cube), gives Maggie a reality check and tells her: “Don’t nobody give a s—about new material”.

Maggie is just an assistant, striving to do more like become a record producer. But her world as an assistant is all about fetching water and green drinks for Grace and helping Grace sort through her enormous wardrobe when the boss says, “I wanna go through my closet and donate things that aren’t sparking joy or whatever”. Her dream of becoming a music producer is something that can easily be achieved. Thanks to her parents including her vinyl loving, music DJ father, played wonderfully by Bill Pullman. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of blues, rock, pop and soul and a natural ear for track mixing and vocals.

Because Maggie’s life isn’t complicated enough, of course she has to not only find herself but find romance too. In one of the cutest meet cutes in recent rom-com history, Maggie crosses paths with Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s David in a grocery store. Over head he hears indie band Phantom Planet’s “California”, playing on the sound system. While Maggie’s not impressed that he knows this song, she replies: “Everybody knows this song, it’s from The O.C.”

But the two quickly get into a game of rattling off some of the best and most famous “California” songs, from Joni Mitchell’s “California” to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (which Maggie’s not a fan of) to Led Zeppelin’s “Going Back to California” to The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin”. 

This is a cute scene as they talk music history, but of course…what do you know?. This handsome, charming and sweet guy David knows his music too. These two already have something in common, actually it turns out he’s an aspiring musician who could use a producer. Is this not the most convenient store ever? Plot developments and sparks of romance, all sold right down in aisle six. 

“The High Note” keeps multiple storylines going, from Grace fearing she’s becoming the cliché pop star who’s adored by everyone, but loved by no one and is becoming yesterday’s news. There is Maggie and David becoming partners in more ways than one, to Maggie getting her big break and screwing it up, to real DJ Diplo playing an egotistical producer who remixes Grace’s music and squeezes the heart and soul out of her music, to the welcome appearance of Bill Pullman. 

“The High Note” has music pumping in its veins, as music history and lore are the subject of a lot of the film’s conversations. We’re willing to forgive the schmaltzy dramatics because of the aforementioned reason and because every character is so darn likable and we root for that happy ending we all know is coming, that’s as sure as that toe tapping chorus of your favorite pop song.

“The High Note” is a real acting and singing tour de force from Tracee Ellis Ross, who belts out six original tunes in a distinctive and powerful voice. Ross plays Grace like a cinematic version of her own mother, legend Diana Ross. It’s a dynamic, powerful performance and those who love her attitude, voice and sense of style, that she comes off as a compelling pop star.

This is Dakota Johnson’s film and she is absurdly charming as Maggie, and she has inherited her parents’ talents as well. Johnson knows how to play this kind of roles and she plays it well, and gives Maggie a believable transition from a musical admirer, into a creative force of her own. “The High Note” superbly depicts how the number of successful female music producers is astonishingly small within the business. 

And the older women get, the tougher it is for them to be taken seriously. As explained in one of the movie’s best moments, Grace tells Maggie, just how high the odds are of being successful later in one’s career and the odds grow virtually insurmountable if you’re black. “The High Note” really hums along when it injects humor to deliver these moments of insight, letting us into the anxieties and concerns that women must face even when at the top of the charts.

Johnson’s Maggie knows her music trivia, but she never shows the full limit of how she lives for music. In the way as Zoe Kravitz’s character Rob, does on the tv series reboot of “High Fidelity”. We see Maggie tweaking some dials in the studio, but you never really see her get into the depths of producing. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr is shown to be a rich singer who likes to perform in front of fancy high end grocery stores and doing bar-mitzvahs. If he really has all this cash and passion for the art, then why does he need someone like Johnson to tell him he needs a decent mic or a studio space? It’s nice to see Harrison, take on lighter material from his recent back to back roles in “Luce” and “Waves”, and he’s got a great voice and is quite good as the romantic lead. Johnson has great chemistry with Ross, Harrison and all of the supporting characters. 

The three big original songs in the movie sung by Tracee Ellis Ross “Love Myself”, “Track 8” by Kelvin Harrison Jr and “Like I Do” sung by both Ross and Harrison, isn’t quite “Shallows” from “A Star Is Born”. But all of the songs, whether it’s an original or a cover is belted out by the actors themselves and they all sound like actual hits. 

“Love Myself” is a traditional power pop ballad, sounding something like what Whitney Houston or Kelly Clarkson might have included in one of their albums and yes….it’s sung by Tracee Ellis Ross, who most certainly has the chops for this. While Kelvin Harrison Jr’s original song “Track 8”, that includes his R&B and pop covers of Sam Cooke, Al Green and Marvin Gaye, is right in the range of something John Legend would put out. 

“The High Note” is a movie that’s a thoroughly entertaining, sunnier take on “A Star Is Born”, but finds itself more along the structure and feel of the Keira Knightly and Mark Ruffalo indie spectacular “Begin Again”. While this doesn’t reach the quality of neither of those films, it still reaches for the stars and leaves an impressive high note in perfectly capturing the feel of the Laurel Canyon, L.A. music scene.

GRADE: ★★★1/2☆☆ (3 & 1/2 out of 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros lives on the beautiful island of Maui. He is a member of The Hawaii Film Critics Society, movie critic for Maui Watch, a commentator and cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, learning about movies from his Grandfather and being self taught.

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