‘The High Note’ offers musical escape with video-on-demand release

 By Douglas Davidson

May 27, 2020

In times of great stress like these, it’s important to remember what gets us through: art. Art brings us joy and helps fight back the darkness and frustration of uncertainty. It’s easy to forget that the art we ingest doesn’t just appear, but is crafted, cultivated, and shaped until it’s ready to be shared. Built within the rather low-stakes character-driven dramedy The High Note from director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and writer Flora Greeson is an exploration of the relationship between art and artist as a commodity. The High Note is an undeniable surprise, elevating your soul as it helps dispel the gloom of reality for a solid two-hour romp. 

Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis in The High Note. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The High Note is a story of two lives hitting a crossroads at the same time. The first is superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), who hasn’t released an original album in over a decade and whose longtime manager, Jack (Ice Cube), wants her to accept a 10-year residency at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. The second is Grace’s assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), whose new dream of becoming a producer begins to take shape when she meets unknown talent David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Each face a defining choice in their respective lives that neither is brave enough to make, but if you’re going to stand in the spotlight, you better be ready to push back against the darkness.

One way to look at The High Note is as a happier A Star is Born. A highly-regarded performer crosses paths with someone just beginning, their stories intertwining for a brief period. Let me assuage your nerves now, that’s about where the similarities end (outside of a truly great soundtrack). The High Note is a deeply layered and equally satisfying film that also works as a simple low-key, low-stress dramedy. The fact that it can be read either way speaks a great deal to Greeson’s script, her first for a feature. Evidently Greeson is not only an avid music lover (something the four central figures share in common), but is also experienced in the realm of being an assistant. 

Dakota Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode and Tracee Ellis Ross as Grace Davis in The High Note. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

Through the writing and Ross’s performance of Grace’s complexity on screen, the battle between remaining relevant and the fear that you’re not, while also battling systemic ageism, gender bias, and the onslaught of attention fame brings an ideal balance. She is someone who’s earned her right and privilege, yet backs down when she’s not being heard because she believes there’s nothing else to do but become the commodity they think she is. On the other side, Maggie is equally flawed: full of knowledge but not enough wisdom. This isn’t to say that Maggie is foolish, just too exuberant. Johnson nails how Maggie can examine, dissect, and construct her way through music but isn’t so good at communicating it. This, of course, could just be director Ganatra’s way of conveying how women are often shouted down for speaking their opinions publicly, something which Ross’s performance as Grace makes glaringly obvious to the audience. If so, it gets back to the subtext of the female role in society. If not, it is just another similarity between the two characters at different points in their career.

If the notion of exploring these deep-seeded issues sounds like an absolute downer, don’t worry, there are plenty of laughs to be found. Without any amount of stretching the imagination or breaking the rules of reality, The High Note surprises again and again with its comedic timing. Whether it’s someone slowly appearing out of focus behind another or an unsuspecting knock interrupting a serious moment, humor arrives often from the very normal and mundane things in life. For a dramedy which mines the complexity of human dynamics, the manner in which The High Note frequently cuts through the bullshit is refreshing. In fact, it has one of the more satisfying character conflict resolution scenes in recent memory. It’s simple, cleanly handled from a narrative perspective, and executed brilliantly by the cast. 

Ice Cube stars as Jack Robertson in The High Note. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

The first thought when you hear that Ross is playing a superstar is “of course!” because of her mother, yet Ross had never sung before in a role. Additionally, Ross, herself, has stated that while her experience growing up in the industry certainly colored the performance, nothing about Grace is based on her mother. With that cleared up, Ross absolutely shines as Grace. As her equal and opposite, Johnson, who crushed it in 2019’s The Peanut Butter Falcon, does it again, effortlessly nailing the tightrope that is comedy and drama. She captures the hunger of someone who doesn’t know better, while being constantly terrified and insecure about going for it. Though smaller in roles, both Harrison Jr. and Cube are fantastic. Harrison Jr. proved with roles in Luce, The Photograph, It Comes at Night, and more that he’s a talent not to be ignored. With his role as David, it’s just more proof that this is only the start of an incredible career. Cube is clearly not at the start of his career, yet he’s still managing to surprise. Much like Ross with Grace, Cube infuses Jack with a great deal of layers. Jack may not win any popularity contests, but there’s no denying the character’s loyal intent which Cube brings forth with ease and, honestly, quite a bit of charm. 

Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as David Cliff and Dakota Johnson as Maggie Sherwoode in The High Note. Credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features

There’s certainly an argument that The High Note is a little too perfect, a little too neat in its conclusion. While the environment of the music industry can feel high stakes, everything about The High Note is profoundly grounded in the characters. The ultimate conclusion feels deeply earned and emotionally satisfying. If there is something to be upset about or frustrated with regarding The High Note, it’s that audiences won’t be able to see it in theaters but at home on VOD. From the gorgeous cinematography from director of photography Jason McCormick (Booksmart) that somehow captures that sense of being up in the clouds while grounded, to the fantastic songs that are peppered throughout the film, The High Note was built for a theatrical experience. Because The High Note is transportive. Even if for only a brief period of time, Ganatra removes us from our living rooms and puts us into a place that’s familiar, even if more distant these days; a place where we can come together, connect through art, and share it together.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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