The High Note has all the makings of a movie I should absolutely hate. It’s loaded with clichés, schmaltz, and a plot twist that really doesn’t work. On paper, we should file this next to baked beans, cottage cheese, and the last three Police Academy sequels as things I can absolutely live without. And–I’ve always wanted to type this phrase–lo and behold, I actually enjoyed this movie a lot more than I thought. Turns out, The High Note hums with real chemistry between the romantic leads and an infectious affection for good music that really put the hook in me.
Note feels like a riff on A Star is Born, with all of the sudsy melodrama subtracted: Maggie (Dakota Johnson) runs ragged as an assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Elis Ross), a Whitney-type diva whose career has spent years in neutral. Maggie has real-deal talent when it comes to producing music, so it’s too bad she spends her days picking up Grace’s Chinese food. Meanwhile, Grace fakes her way through live performances, slogging through a greatest hits album–rich, respected, and bored to tears. Both women find themselves in a career malaise, a destination reached from very different journeys.
Their snow globes get a good shakin’ in the form of David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). David is a folk-soul troubadour with a velvet voice and the aw-shucks charisma of a potential superstar. Maggie is drawn to him, personally and professionally; his still-raw talent is ripe for creative development. The two collaborate, honing his stage presence and molding his music past rough-draft status. Of course, this draws Maggie away from her job and sets up the inevitable showdown with Grace and her staff, led by the mercurial Jack (Ice Cube).
You can pretty much paint The High Note by the numbers. Surprises are few–although not completely absent, we’ll get to that shortly–and the script lags with a few moments of truly lazy writing. It’s a remarkable achievement that this movie doesn’t end up in the ditch with its wheels spinning.
Note‘s biggest asset lies in the cozy smolder between Johnson and Harrison. The two have a playful interplay that’s the most real-feeling thing about this entire movie. And both actors bring warmth and intelligence to their roles, something that rescues the script when it settles for the easy layup.
In fact, I’ll go a step further and say that the entire movie could’ve and should’ve focused on this angle. Ross gets perfectly cast as the frustrated superstar, but Grace’s narrative is also the dullest and most cliché-ridden in the entire story. Ice Cube’s bulldog-barking manager may as well have been built from a kit, and that goes ditto for Grace’s sycophantic house-sitter (June Diane Raphael). This plotline ends with the movie’s only real surprise, and it damn near whisks the rug right out from under everything. I won’t give anything away, but I will predict that by the time it arrives, you’ll have either bought into this film’s goofiness or not.
Count me as one of the buyers. I’ll confess that I’m a full-on music geek. Maggie, David, and I could talk for hours about Joni Mitchell and Bobby Blue Bland. I also can’t hate any movie that features Sam Cooke as part of its storyline. (One trivia note: Maggie mispronounces the name of the Beatles’ manager. It’s Brian Ep-STINE, not STEEN. If I wore glasses, I’d be pushing them up the bridge of my nose right now.) And yeah, all this might be cornball and manipulative, but what can I say? It worked on me. In the right frame of mind, The High Note might do the same for you.
113 min. PG-13.