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High Note, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Not Exactly Supreme"
2 stars

The omnipresent television commercials for “The High Note” suggest that it is going to be a film centering on a veteran pop star who has been coasting on her past hits and legacy for years and who comes to a crossroads where she has to decide whether she is going to record her first album of new material in over a decade—a potentially risky move from a commercial standpoint—or take on an extended Las Vegas residency that would have her churning out the same old hits night after night—a highly lucrative deal but one that would essentially signal her complete creative standstill. I don’t know about you but that sounds like a potentially fascinating movie that could possibly offer up some real insight into the creative process and how celebrated artists wrestle with the question of trying new things as opposed to giving the audience more of what they already like. To make things more intriguing, the singer is played by Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Diana, and while she clearly landed the role based on her own considerable talents, her presence adds an additional layer of frisson to the premise that probably would not be there if another actress got the part. And yet, anyone intrigued by the possibilities suggested by those commercials are going to be hugely disappointed when they see it for themselves and learns that most of them have been kicked to the side in order to make room for a narrative thrust and characters that are far less interesting and which transform the film into a cup of extremely weak tea that has been steeped in cliches and which pays lips service to female empowerment without actually having any notable thoughts on the subject as it heads to one of the more embarrassing wrap-ups in recent memory.

The real central character of the film, as it turns out, is Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), an ambitious young woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music who is employed as the personal assistant to the aforementioned diva, Grace Davis. Not content to simply pick up Grace’s dry cleaning and groceries, Maggie has ambitions of being a music producer herself and when the question of recording new music vs going to Vegas comes up, she is clearly on the side of going back into the studio to do new songs, preferably with her producing them despite having no professional experience in that regard. To prove her point that she can do it, Maggie surreptitiously produces her own mix of a song for Grace’s upcoming live album and presents it to Grace and her manager (Ice Cube), who prefers the easy money to be had in Vegas than on gambling on a hit that might not pay off, at a meeting they are having with a slick producer (real life producer Dilpo spoofing himself) who prefers burying Grace’s voice under a ton of sonic distractions. Note to all aspiring music producers working as personal assistants who yearn to get ahead in the industry—do not try this at home.

So far, so good but it is just at this point, when the story is still brimming with potential, that it takes its big pivot to mediocrity. One day, Maggie has a meet cute while shopping for groceries with the devastatingly handsome and charming David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) that begins with them bantering over music and concludes with David performing a concert outside the store for the shoppers. He clearly has talent and charm and when Maggie meets him again at a party at his house—one that seems slightly larger and more ostentatious than one might normally find in the possession of musicians performing outside of grocery stores—she tells him that she is a bona fide music producer and would like to cut an album with him. While keeping her day job as Grace’s assistant hidden David and her moonlighting activities a secret from Grace, Maggie and David put together some promising cuts and even fall in love in the process. However, Maggie gets a little too ambitious and tries to orchestrate a scheme to get Grace’s opening act (Eddie Izzard spoofing Elton John) at a big industry event to drop out at the last second so that she can present David before Grace and a roomful of big shots. This does not quite develop as anticipated and while it does lead to the last-minute introduction of the always-welcome Bill Pullman as Maggie’s well-meaning father, it also leads to one of those last-minute plot twists that is both predictable and preposterous beyond belief.

For a movie that clearly takes the side of taking artistic chances by creating something new instead of simply rehashing the same formulas until they are completely wrung dry, “The High Note” proves itself to be more than willing to choose the path of least creative resistance for itself. The screenplay by Flora Greeson starts off with some interesting insights but then tosses them away in order to spend more time on Maggie’s adventures producing David and what transpires when he discovers that she isn’t real a producer. For starters, this means that Grace too often begins to feel like a plus-one at her own party—there are long stretches of time when she is completely absent from the proceedings. Also, the conflicts that arise from Maggie’s ambitions to produce feel oddly dated in an era in which this year’s top winner at the Grammy Awards was an album recorded in a bedroom. Instead of tackling these issues with any sort of intelligence, Greeson relies more and more on awkward contrivances to keep things moving along before arriving at a conclusion in which a ridiculous series of revelations are deployed in order to ensure that pretty much every character get an unambiguous and consequence-free happy ending, even though the underlying of those happy endings rather undercuts the alleged message that true success should come as a result of personal, professional and artistic integrity

Although director Nisha Ganatra keeps things moving along in a slick but impersonal manner that leaves you anticipating virtually every note that is hit throughout (it is ironic that a couple of characters dis The Eagles at one point because if you wanted to suggest a group that might serve as the musical equivalent to what is up on the screen, they would be the ideal selection), whatever energy that “The High Note” manages to generate comes almost exclusively from the cast. Now that she is completely removed from the yoke, so to speak, of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” franchise, Dakota Johnson has gone on to become a much more interesting and entertaining screen presence with a flair for comedy that this screenplay does not make enough use of—she is certainly likable enough here but she is hampered by the shortcomings of the script. Likewise, Ross brings a lot of fun and energy to her early scenes but then she disappears for long stretches of screen time and when she does turn up, her character winds up suffering from the unlikely plot manipulations. The best performance on display comes from Ice Cube, who is clearly having fun skewering any number of music industry weasels that he has encountered throughout his own long-running musical career

Although “The High Note” was obviously produced with the intention of screening in movie theaters, it may be one of the few major films of late to shift to a streaming premiere that will benefit from the change—in every aspect except for the quality of the cast, it has the look and feel of a film seemingly designed to be stumbled over on cable one night while channel-hopping. It has a lot of potential but makes little use of it as it goes about its increasingly formulaic ways to its forced happy endings. For a movie featuring so many people hoping to achieve musical perfection, it just hits too many bum notes along the way for its own good.

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originally posted: 05/28/20 07:43:00
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