In the Key of Eh
The High Note’s coronavirus-induced direct-to-streaming release might be a blessing in disguise, seeing as it’s a perfect example of a movie that makes no case whatsoever to be seen in theaters. Its visual palette has that bland, distinctly digital warmth that has become the go-to for so many low-ish budget releases these days. But since The High Note makes it clear from the get-go that it has no pretensions of visual style, its real test is how it fares as a frothy romantic comedy.
Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is the overworked, underappreciated assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B superstar entering middle age. Grace works Maggie hard but is mostly friendly towards her, while Maggie secretly dreams of becoming a music producer. After a successful tour, Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube) pushes for her to take a Las Vegas residency, a safe bet that goes against Grace’s secret wish to record a new album. Meanwhile, Maggie becomes involved with David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) a raw musical talent whose songs she produces under the false pretense of being an industry veteran.
And…that’s about it. One of the problems with The High Note is that its story often feels more like a loose series of events than an honest-to-goodness plot. The movie shifts gears from Grace’s residency dilemma, to Maggie’s aspirations, to Maggie’s relationship with David in a way that’s rarely seamless. These subplots all feel a little too disparate, and the script can’t decide which – and sometimes, whose – story it wants to tell. Maggie and David’s romance feels the most extraneous; it has little connection to the rest of the story until a ridiculous third-act twist that only makes things worse. Johnson and Harrison’s chemistry is adequate, but the scenes between them are little more than boxes on the rom-com checklist. Sometimes, the movie can’t even get those right, as in the case of David’s initial girlfriend, who disappears from the movie with no explanation.
The relationship that does work is between Maggie and Grace, who are totally believable as longtime colleagues in the grey area between personal and professional. Though the two are most certainly types, the script and performances are good at making them feel human, and the conflict between them usually rings true. The only other interesting character is Jack, an antagonist whose sympathetic motives keep him from being a one-dimensional villain. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t know what to do with him in the second half and shoves him aside until the ending.
A movie like this lives or dies by its music, and in this regard The High Note is wildly inconsistent. It boasts a great soundtrack of classic R&B tunes, but their presence exposes just how uninspired the original songs are. Ross has the voice to be credible as a professional singer, but she’s let down by the movie’s execution. The handful of concert scenes make no effort to make her singing appear live; they’re shamelessly lip-synced and the over-polished, autotuned production drains them of life. It doesn’t help that the songs themselves – anonymous pieces of pap with titles like “Love Myself” – are nothing special either.
The mediocrity of the original soundtrack is at odds with the movie’s aspirations to shrewd commentary on the music business. Its attempts at satire are too broad and cliché to have any impact, depicting execs as the same idiotic yes men we’ve seen in countless other movies. There’s also a buffoonish straw man of a techno producer (Diplo) brought in for Grace to complain about his “flashy bullshit,” a decidedly ironic accusation.
But for all its faults, The High Note succeeds at being watchable fluff, though it would go down easier with a shorter runtime. It’s a movie so fleeting and insubstantial that it won’t elicit any real distaste, but it also won’t elicit much of anything else. The whole thing is aggressively, dishearteningly average, taking a premise that could have been somewhat novel and instead churning out a product as soulless and unoriginal as the music it claims to denounce. Even within the small world of musical rom-coms, The High Note is a B-Side at best.