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‘The High Note’ a bit flat, but still fun

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Hollywood loves making movies about music. Now, we’re not talking movie musicals (although that genre seems to potentially be making a comeback as well) so much as movies about the makers of music.

There’s a particular affection for the juxtaposition of those struggling to make it against those who have already made it; stories of upward and downward trajectories and the intersection of those lines.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra from a script by Flora Greeson, is the latest in this long line of rise-and-decline tales – one that doesn’t venture very far from the fundamentals. This story of a world-famous diva and her aspirational personal assistant doesn’t offer much in the way of surprises, but it’s tough to argue against the relative quality of its execution.

It’s a well-made movie, featuring good performances from its leads. And the music is solid (and in a couple of cases more than solid) – a major key to the relative success of this kind of film. It’s a reasonably entertaining experience; the tune is a familiar one, and there’s nothing wrong with liking a song you’ve heard a hundred times. All in all, the movie is … fine, even if it does occasionally wander off-key.

Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson, “The Peanut Butter Falcon”) has spent the past three years working as the personal assistant to longtime global music superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, TV’s “Black-ish”). Davis is a legend, a musical icon who continues to tour on the strength of her lengthy string of past hits; her manager Jack (Ice Cube, “Fist Fight”) is encouraging her to release a live album and/or commit to a residency in Las Vegas.

Maggie isn’t looking to be an assistant for the rest of her life, though – she has grander ambitions. Specifically, she wants to be a producer. But she can’t get Grace to see her as anything more than an assistant – even when she puts together a remix of one of Grace’s songs that outshines that of the hired gun producer, she gets dressed down, both by Grace and by Jack.

Things change when Maggie meets David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “The Photograph”), a singer-songwriter who she thinks has the potential to hit it big. Through a bit of deception by omission, she convinces David to let her produce an album for him. The two prove to be a good team, both in the studio and … elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Maggie’s performance at work is slipping, something Grace notices even as the diva is struggling with her own feelings with regards to her future. Grace loves her fans and loves to tour, but part of her wants to continue creating rather than continuing to recycle the work of her past. And of course, the ego-driven neediness born of decades of superstardom isn’t easy to deal with on either side.

But eventually, the time will come when Maggie must decide between Grace and David, between the comfortable inertia of her current situation or the leap of faith into the creative unknown. And either choice will come with its own set of sacrifices.

Look – if you’re seeking great cinema, then you’re going to want to keep looking. “The High Note” is a comfort food-type film, the sort of movie that is a perfectly cromulent way to pass a couple of hours, but nothing more than that. And that’s OK – sometimes, you just want to sit back and let yourself be washed over with waves of familiarity. There’s nothing new here, but that feels more like a feature than a bug.

All that said, there are a couple of aspects to this movie that elevate it above the humdrum genericity that it could easily become.

We’ll start with the performances. Johnson is well-suited to this type of role, one that is ostensibly the lead but doesn’t demand that she fully carry the entire film. There’s a congeniality to her that works nicely on film, though I like her best when she gets to flash a little edge. Ross is utterly believable as the diva, finding that unique blend of bombast and insecurity that marks the greats; the fact that she grew up with Diana Ross as a mom likely informs the work in ways both conscious and unconscious. As a comedic pairing, these two are lovely together, but they also make it work when things get a little more serious.

The supporting cast is small, but there are a couple of strong entries. Ice Cube is a delight; he doesn’t have a ton of range, but few are as entertaining to watch as he is when he’s comfortable in his lane. Harrison is charismatic as heck while also being a legitimate musical talent; he’s great throughout, particularly when he’s vibing with Johnson. Zoe Chao steals a couple of scenes as Maggie’s roommate, while June Diane Raphael gets some big laughs as Grace’s house manager.

And the songs – they work. Ross has the bloodlines, obviously, and Harrison is a trained musician, so the music works. And that’s huge, because these kinds of movies about music and the music industry work best when the music is, you know, good. And this music is just that; a couple of the Grace Davis tunes are legitimate R&B bangers.

“The High Note” is a rare movie in its way, a film that accomplishes precisely what it sets out to do. It might not have as much to say about the music industry as it could, relying instead on rom-com tropes and aspirational fairy tale vibes, but again – that’s fine. It’s familiar and flawed, but still has some fun. The final verdict?

A decent enough movie, sure, though for me, it’s a little pitchy, dawg.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Saturday, 30 May 2020 10:08

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