Nisha Ganatra‘s new movie The High Note starts off fairly promising. It’s about an assistant who wants to be a producer and an acclaimed singer who’s torn between the safety of a Vegas residency where she’d only play hits and taking a gamble on a new album. That’s a great premise, especially when you have the opportunity to watch two women collaborate on an artistic project. But then Flora Greeson‘s screenplay decides that’s not enough, so really the assistant has to pose as a producer to help an aspiring artist. From there, you’ve taken what was already a light drama and watered it down so thoroughly that it ceases to have much of a spark. When the film finally makes a convoluted stab at how these two plots are connected, you can only gawk at the ineptitude of the storytelling and wish The High Note had followed a better tune.
Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is a music aficionado who dreams of being a producer. She’s been toiling away for the last three years as the assistant to the acclaimed Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a music icon, but one that’s famous for her older tunes rather than producing anything new. Her venal manager Jack (Ice Cube) wants Grace to do a lucrative residency in Vegas, but Maggie thinks Grace should get back in the studio and record a new album, which Maggie could then produce. As this plan begins to stall, Maggie teams up with David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring musician who could use her musical acumen to help his songs. However, as Maggie tries to juggle being a celebrity assistant and being a producer, she ends up endangering both occupations.
The High Note charms with its light drama in the first act as it looks like it will be about the relationship between Maggie and Grace, but once it starts splitting time with the Maggie/David plotline, the thin plot starts to crumble. The problem is that it doesn’t really know how to depict Grace or David outside of their relationship to Maggie, and the characters become thinner as a result. The film doesn’t know if Grace is a needy, vain celebrity or a real artist with something to say. It’s tough to buy into the character when she’s drunkenly ordering drive-thru at a food truck in one scene and then the next time we see her, she’s pointing out ageism and sexism in the music industry. Is Grace someone who needs to be taken seriously by the audience, or is she a tired parody of celebrity indulgence? The High Note decides that Grace is whatever the movie needs her to be at any particular moment, and does so in the most hackneyed way possible.
To get into some spoilers about how bad this movie gets, there’s a scene in the third act where Grace has fired Maggie, but then Grace, after having a conversation with a close confidant that serves as an epiphany, comes to Maggie’s humble abode to work with her again. The benevolent and acclaimed artist has come to her talented neophyte protégé to work on an artistic collaboration. If this sounds familiar, it’s because that’s what happens between Mindy Kaling and Emma Thompson in Ganatra’s last movie, Late Night. It wasn’t a great scene in Late Night, and here it feels like a scene for people that wanted Late Night but without the jokes.
But it gets worse a few minutes later when David comes to Maggie’s house, sees Grace there, and we learn that David and Maggie are related. David is Maggie’s secret son, and while it would be great to maybe dig into that and what it means for those characters, this is Maggie’s story, so it gets one scene of conversation, and then we got to wrap up this movie. Rather than doing the work of making us invested in Grace and David as individuals rather than supporting characters in Maggie’s career path, they get a soap opera twist and then the movie basically ends.
There’s a stronger story here about women lifting each other up in the music industry, but The High Note is more interested in Maggie being torn between two jobs, and eventually getting it all through benevolent celebrity and good fortune. That’s not to mention that for a movie about a love of music, it doesn’t have any memorable songs. The music, like the direction, is passable, but you never feel the love these characters have for their art because it’s really about Maggie’s career choices, which is a far less interesting narrative. Instead of coming through clear about musical collaboration and developing as an artist, The High Note is a garbled cacophony.