The music industry’s complex marriage between artistic expression and business intentions has been ripe for cinematic exploration, with crowd-pleasing vehicles like A Star is Born and La La Land standing tall amongst their peers. The latest in the genre’s long-running lineage is The High Note, which packs a soulful narrative about two women fighting against the industry’s dated standards. Despite its timely premise, the equally hackneyed and superficial approach restricts this venture throughout.
The High Note follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson), an aspiring producer who works in the shadow of musical superstar Grace Davis (Black-ish star Tracee Ellis Ross, daughter of Supremes icon Diana Ross). To get her boss’s attention, Maggie teams up with David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), trying to prove herself worthy of aiding Grace on her comeback album.
Akin to Grace Davis’ swaggering personality, The High Note packs a punch in star power. Tracee Ellis Ross steps into the shoes of Davis masterfully, portraying the diva sheen of the character while unearthing sincere insecurities about her waning career. Paired up with Dakota Johnson’s wide-eyed optimistic light, the two highlight the film’s most noteworthy moments, bonding over their shared embrace of music’s emotional and connective qualities.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. has shined as an indie favorite (last year’s Waves and Luce made for a breakout year), but it’s a joy to see the rising star step into the spotlight here. Imbuing David with an easy-going charm and captivating energetic spirit, he commands the screen effortlessly, soaring to new heights when he reveals his impressive vocal talents. Ice Cube is also having a blast here as Grace’s gruff manager, utilizing his deadpan comedic persona to great effect.
It’s a shame to see the impressive performance work restricted by artificial execution. At the core of this film is a meaningful tale on female’s inequitable battle for authorship in a male-dominant industry that only cares to cultivate their popular tracks. Screenwriter Flora Greeson merely uses this compelling conceit as a backdrop for confectionary romantic comedy pleasures, having little to say about the industry aside from a few light-hearted barbs about its innate superficiality.
Even from the perspective of a straight-forward rom-com, The High Note fails to hit the right notes. Greeson’s screenplay packs a heaping of contrivances that only work to create forced conflicts, including a third act twist that is blown past in an almost comical fashion. Fleeting moments of sincerity are brushed past in favor of dull montages and predictable plot beats, with director Nisha Ganatra’s effort unable to liven up its familiar delivery.
There’s a winning crowd-pleaser buried somewhere amid The High Note’s runtime, but standard-issue execution derails its worthwhile creative spark.
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