Movie review: The High Note

(image via Been to the Movies)

There are, so we are told, only so many story types in circulation.

Which means, of course, that even when you try to be blisteringly original, you are usually, no matter how hard to try or how much imagination you bring to the narrative table, repeating much of which has before.

The trick then is to place as distinctively unique a spin on proceedings as you can, why is precisely what writer Flora Greeson and director Nisha Ganatra do with The High Note, a film that, mostly adroitly, balances between romantic comedy and music industry drama.

On narrative alone, if you were to be so cruel as to strip away the fine performances, palpable sense of humanity and effusive charm of the film, you might not think there is a great deal to get excited about.

The High Note is the reasonably clichéd story of a young woman with a dream to be a music producer, in this case Maggie Sherwoode (Dakota Johnson), who is the personal assistant to uber-successful singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a music artist who is perceived by her record company and even her close friend and manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) to be past her prime and who struggles with where she should head next in her career – record a new album or play it safe and take up a Vegas residency?

Maggie has worked for Grace for three years and while she is happy in her role, which she took with no expectation that she would leverage the job for any kind of music career, she is itching to try her hand at producing new music for Grace who has been a musical hero of hers since she was a child.

In the middle of all this to-and-froing about realising new dreams (Maggie) and keeping old ones alive or resuscitating them completely (Grace), Maggie meets the charming, handsome and musically talented David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is dabbling with a career in music biz and who offers Maggie a chance to hone her musical production dreams.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

So far, so been-there-done-that.

But what sets The High Note is how brilliantly well it used the clichéd pieces which make its very enjoyable running time.

Infused throughout with a warmth and heart-on-the-sleeves sensibility that belies the reasonably connect-the-dots nature of the storyline, the film is bursting with a palpable sense of rich, charming humanity that makes everything, even the more cheesy, preposterously too good to be true elements feel magically possible and grounded.

A lot of that humanity comes down to fine, nuanced performances from Johnson, Ross and Harrison, all of whom feel like real people caught in some fairly extraordinary situations.

That’s not an easy feat to achieve when coincidence after coincidence piles up to the point where The High Note begins to make certain escapist out-there fairytales feel like real world documentaries exploring the hard knocks school of life.

In lesser hands, the story, which is inoffensive lovely and inspiring and just the sort of thing the dark, cold months of 2020 are crying out for, might have faded into ephemeral nothingness, a story so slight and thin that you would forget about five seconds after the credits begin rolling.

The High Note escapes that fate because these three actors imbue their characters with a groundedness that makes everything feel entirely possible and believable.

So you accept, thanks to Johnson’s whimsicality and gentle steel-eyed determination to make her own success, that a personal assistant to a diva could find the time for a personal life, to dabble in music production on the side and to hang her with bestie and roommate Katie (Zoë Chao) during actual daylight hours.

Or that an 11-time Grammy Award-winning singer would consent to her personal assistant pitching the idea of producing her first album of new material in 10 years.

On their own, unadorned and left as lines in a script, they seem too far-fetched to be remotely possible, but in the everything-is-possible world of The High Note they not only seem possible but the sort of thing that could happen to a normal every day person like Maggie.

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

To be fair, in just about every rom-com and musical drama out here, there is a substantial suspension of disbelief required to fully enjoy the films.

They are, after all, aspirational fairytales of a kind and who amongst us hasn’t been happy to accept that a lowly-paid assistant could live in a fabulous apartment or that renewed connection and dream fulfillment could follow being fired?

It would never happen in the real world, but in films like The High Note we happily accept that this is how life is and can be and so even as we might occasionally pause to inwardly laugh at a complete narrative improbability – example A is the scene in Maggie’s dad’s (Bill Pullman) kitchen where Maggie, David and Grace meet face-to-face and cheesily OTT things ensue – we largely go with the rose-tinted hyperbole because getting lost in a dream is one of the reasons we go to the movies in the first place.

Ganatra’s delightful film rewards that suspension of disbelief handsomely with a slew of heart tugging larger-than-life scenes that make you sigh with happy delight, but it goes beyond that, bringing a real sense of humanity to the story and in the process elevating the film beyond what it might otherwise be.

You can’t help but really like Maggie, Grace and David because for all their perfect dialogue and sense of seamlessly perfect living, they also feel just flawed enough to be the kind of people who’d get things wrong, who’d have to apologise and try to make things right.

The High Note might feel larger-than-life in an almost ridiculous and quietly realised way much of the time but you don’t care because you like these people, you love the world they inhabit and you want them to find happiness, personal or professional, and at the end of the day, it’s the characters and their likability that make you fall in love with a film like this.

We want to believe grounded people can live lives this gilded and magically possible and The High Note grants our wishes, rewarding us with a song-rich and emotionally-infused film which is the perfect antidote to the tuneless dirge of 2020 where what we want most of all to believe things get better.

The High Note assures us that they do and then some, and that even ordinary souls like Maggie (and by extension, we the humble audience) can look forward to a future where love, forgiveness, connection and the realisation of dreams are all the well-deserved orders of the day.

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