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Culture » Film Reviews

Sweet Music

The High Note delivers the kind of slick Hollywood entertainment we've been missing.

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FOCUS FEATURES
  • Focus Features
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There's something more than slightly meta about The High Note, a slick, glossy entertainment that's about the world of slick, glossy entertainment. But it's also coming to us at a time when we might be ready to appreciate slick, glossy entertainment more by virtue of its absence from our lives. While you can certainly find many quality independent dramas and thought-provoking documentaries among the new streaming releases on virtual cinema platforms, sometimes you get hungry for the pleasures of Hollywood craftsmanship.

That is by no means a faint-praise-damning swipe at this story about Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), who is working on three years as personal assistant to legendary R&B singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross). While Grace is heading into the "considering a residency at a Vegas casino" phase of her career, Maggie is trying to figure out how to advance her aspirations at being a music producer. When Maggie meets David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a talented singer/songwriter who seems content with playing bar mitzvahs and grocery store parking lots, she sees her chance at a breakthrough—provided she can squeeze any additional hours into Grace's demands on her time.

The two central relationships—between Maggie and Grace, and between Maggie and David—share more-or-less equal billing, and first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson provides a solid foundation for the performances to build on. Johnson gets a great role as Maggie, conveying the sheer joy that music brings to her, and that she's a genuine fan of Grace's work, rather than simply seeing her as a career stepping stone. Ross brings something softer and more thoughtful to Grace beyond being a high-maintenance aging diva, particularly as the singer wrestles with the realization that being over 40 and African-American in the music industry isn't generally a pathway to ongoing popular relevance. The dynamic between the two women echoes that of director Nisha Ganatra's previous feature, Late Night, with the added buzz of Grace trusting Maggie even as she envies someone who's young and white, and who couldn't understand what Grace faced reaching the top in the first place.

You get even more buzz, though, from the scenes between Johnson and Harrison, who have an absolutely phenomenal on-screen chemistry. It's not always easy for a movie to nail an attraction between two people built on a clear mutual respect for one another's talents, but The High Note satisfies as a romantic dramedy because every moment Johnson and Harrison share crackles with that heat. It's hard to overstate the fun that comes from watching enough romantic friction in a movie that you might walk away a little bit pregnant.

And while The High Note gets the big stuff right, it also gets lots of little stuff right, too. The supporting cast is filled with performers doing terrific work—Ice Cube as Grace's long-time manager; Zoë Chao as Maggie's roommate; June Diane Raphael as Grace's ditzy sort-of-housekeeper—and nailing all their best lines. The world of the movie has an internal logic to it, like the fact that we see Maggie's roommate wearing a Grace Davis T-shirt, because of course she has access to them. There's even something great about the attention to detail in a scene where Maggie takes out of her wireless earbuds to share with Grace what song she's listening to, then when a conversation ensues, Maggie has to remember to take out the other earbud as well.

It is kind of a bummer that The High Note loses its footing somewhat in the third act after such a strong start. The general narrative arc is unsurprising, which isn't a huge problem, but some of the plot developments just end up feeling forced. This is the kind of movie that works best when it's feeling effortless, which is why it's so perfect that in one of the early sequences capturing Grace on tour with her lavish stage show, Ganatra cuts back and forth between the shows themselves and the rehearsals and sound checks that precede those shows. A slick, glossy entertainment only ends up looking slick and glossy after a lot of people put in a lot of hard work to make it look that way, all so that we can smile with simple pleasure.