The High Note, released as it was during the coronavirus pandemic, saw its initial release on streaming services; it might be kinder not to suggest that it would have been better off being released straight to video regardless of global health crises.
The film revolves, rather unfortunately, around Maggie, PA to an ageing (no, seriously—she’s in her forties…) singer named Grace Davis. Grace swings between being kind and empathetic and supportive toward Maggie, who harbours ambitions of being a record producer, and being an entitled brat who treats staff with contempt. It’s not a very nuanced character, but Tracee Ellis Ross, the second-best thing in the film, does what she can with it, convincingly portraying the room-filling presence of an international star. Maggie also has a romantic interest in an inexplicably wealthy but apparently unemployed singer, David (Kelvin Harrison Jr), although you’d never guess it from the trailer, which would have you believe the entire film is about Grace—that would have been a significantly more enjoyable picture, but the film we get is massively weaker.
A large part of this is the burden Dakota Johnson is asked to carry as Maggie. She’s simply not up to the task of leading a film—she’s perhaps best known for the spectacularly, woefully shite Fifty Shades films (reviews here, here and here; I suffered the films, so you could at least read what I had to say about them), and her acting skills haven’t noticeably developed since them. Bad Times At The El Royale hinted at depths that have not since been revealed any further, and The High Note sees Johnson revisiting the insipid simper that got her through the Fifty Shades trilogy. She’s simply not a terribly good actress; she’s absolutely not got the talent, the presence, the depth, or the range needed to carry a film like this.
A stronger film might have made up for the weaknesses of Johnson’s acting, but The High Note lacks, well, many high notes. The pace is slow, the script is lumpen and leaden; it doesn’t help that I saw it a few hours after watching Greed, a film that crackles with tart and crisp lines delivered with venom and bite, all things that The High Note lacks in spades. It tries to to be musically literate, but its cataloguing of, say, Sam Cooke’s recordings ends up feeling like little more than musical stamp collecting.
The two storylines—Maggie as PA to Grace, and romantically and musically invested in David; there’s definite echoes of A Star Is Born, but it’s simply not as good a film as ASAB—finally come together in a not entirely unpredictable way, but by the time we get there most interest has been lost. It’s a shame, because what could have been an entirely more interesting film, the story of a black woman in her forties (and, as Grace points out in a scene that makes the trailer, only one black woman in her forties has ever had a number one record) trying to stay relevant, simply isn’t given the room to breath, Johnson’s slightly little-girl-lost turn being pushed to the fore instead and not to good effect.
What makes this harder to take is that there is talent in this film. Setting Johnson aside for a moment, and Harrison, who may be a decent actor, but is so underused we have no way of knowing, there is the potential to make a much better film. Ross’ Davis is a character with complexity that is left unexplored; Ross has the energy to fill the screen as her character requires, but is rarely allowed to use it. Ice Cube as Jack, her manager, bristles with frustrated rage; the Davis film that The Hight Note should have been would have had a much more central role for him. And, spoiler though it might be, Eddie Izzard, in the space of two scenes and perhaps four minutes, entirely and shamelessly steals the film as Dan, another ageing singer.
Don’t be misled by the trailer. The High Note is not the film it claims to be; it’s also simply really not very good at all.