Like The Lovebirds, director Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note is another movie forced into an online release by the pandemic, following the $20, 48-hour rental pathway instead of selling directly to a streaming service. The two films end up being somewhat similar in my eyes, but unlike my assessment last week, I think The High Note will suffer somewhat from not being seen in theaters.
While watching it, I was diverted and engaged, and I expected my final estimation of it to be higher than it is. Once the credits rolled and that effect wore off, I was surprised to find no lingering impression— no scenes replaying in my mind, no questions to ponder, no laughs to fondly revisit. It was like I had already forgotten it. The theatrical experience helps films that are at their best in the moment by heightening that moment, and this one unfortunately won’t get the chance to make the most of its strengths.
The High Note tells the story of Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), a woman looking to turn her job as the personal assistant to famous singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) into a career as a music producer. Unable to swiftly make the jump by mixing a version of Davis’ next album after hours, she takes on the talented but insecure David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as her first real project and discovers that balancing her divided responsibilities is more difficult than she expected.
The story is palpably formulaic and unavoidably predictable; I do my best to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but in this case, you’ll do the spoiling for yourself as you go. Formulas exist for a reason— though no substitute for quality, they are roadmaps for effective storytelling and can offer a reliably solid moviegoing experience. They tend to shift attention away from the story, and the better everything around them is, the better the film seems to be.
The performances make the most use of this extra room to breathe in The High Note, with all three of the central actors giving their characters a bit more depth than they had on the page. Ross’ aging superstar is particularly interesting, oscillating between kindness and egotism to keep the audience from easily categorizing her in terms of likability. The music, too, is a plus, as is the welcome attention given to the creative process. The scenes that show Maggie collaborating with David to discover his sound, which dive into the moment and away from the larger story arc, are among the movie’s most engaging.
The storytelling itself is relatively routine, and Ganatra’s handling of tone is where the film’s weaknesses are most easily visible. The High Note is lighthearted and comforting, and you’ll find yourself happily diverted when it stays in this space. Whenever it tries to reach outside that range of feeling, whether to explore a character’s emotional low-point or to communicate a larger message, it strains to take you with it. In a fully immersive setting, the audience might be willing to go along, but the movie is not moving or transporting enough on its own. It is, however, fun while it lasts.