The 400-Word Review: High Note
By Sean Collier
May 29, 2020
“The High Note” is not actually about Dakota Johnson’s character. That makes it exceptionally bewildering that she is the focal point of the movie.
Johnson plays Maggie Sherwood, a prototypically plucky Angeleno who aspires to become a music producer. For the time being, she’s an assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B megastar in her greatest-hits phase. The journey and the subject — including the most trenchant commentary to be found in “The High Note” — are all about Davis. Thanks to a powerhouse performance, the diva is the clear star of the picture.
Yet we’re mostly stuck with Sherwood, who — despite an earnest, if not particularly dynamic, effort from Johnson — is a less interesting version of Anna Kendrick’s character from the “Pitch Perfect” trilogy.
The story (at least the parts of it that matter): There are years between Davis and her last album of new material, itself a bit of a disappointment. Her long-time barnacle of a manager (Ice Cube) and the label are urging her to commit to a massive Las Vegas residency. She wants to write and record and return to herself; those around her want dubstep remixes of the hits.
The exception is Sherwood. This is where the character might’ve slotted nicely into the story; ostensibly a tale of intergenerational friendship, “The High Note” should’ve remained focused on the young woman’s efforts to revitalize the career of her idol (and how that aspiration was, in part, self-serving).
Instead: Sherwood secretly begins managing an unambitious young soul singer (Kelvin Harrsion Jr.) and, in a disappointing development, starts sleeping with him. (Could we have a female protagonist without her relationship serving as a pivotal story point? Apparently not.) She schemes to get him exposure via a party Davis is throwing, veering “The High Note” into sitcom territory and setting up a parade of late-film reveals and confessions.
You’ll forgive me for focusing so much on where the story does and does not go. The story (Flora Greeson is the writer) is the problem because all the other elements are solid and sturdy. The cast is great, director Nisha Ganatra cultivates a charming atmosphere, the music is lovely. “The High Note” is worth watching, and can pass as middling, cotton-candy fluff.
It just leaves an awful lot on the table. If the movie were the main character, it would choose the Vegas residency.
My Rating: 5/10
“The High Note” begins streaming tomorrow on digital on-demand platforms.