Film Review – The High Note (2020)

About a month ago, the controversial straight-to-digital release of Universal’s Trolls: World Tour caused even more shockwaves through a film industry still getting to grips with the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on its, and everyone’s, way of life in ways we couldn’t have imagined. Sure, cinema pales in comparison to the state of the world right now but the change it has wrought may well be everlasting, a “new normal” in film land to go alongside our other adjustments the world over. Following Trolls is The High Note, the latest high profile direct-to-streaming film that was due to hit multiplexes but now, with a gap in the market, its studio has changed tack.

A frothy, charming but slight romantic comedy, the film focuses – somewhat puzzlingly – on Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson), a young woman hungry to work in the music industry but paying her dues as personal assistant to the legendary Grace Davis (Tracie Ellis Ross), one of the world’s foremost female artists. She’s under the sort of pressure you would expect from someone in her position but she sees the benefits of being around someone of Davis’ prestige and as a jumping off point, it couldn’t be any better.

However, frustrated by her inability to make any real contribution to Davis’ career – she thinks she should make a new album, the record label sees $$$ with a Las Vegas residency – Maggie spots young, unsigned singer/songwriter David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jnr) and senses a means to an end.

So far, so fluffy rom-com but beneath the slightly saccharine coating is a deep, thoughtful story about rejection, ageism, race, the state of the music industry and feminism. It’s such a shame that none of that really gets any chance to breathe in the misguided narrative.

The script by Flora Greeson was part of the Black List in 2018 but it’s not hard to imagine why it sat on a shelf for a while as it feels very much like a patchwork of ideas that don’t quite mesh: either be a straight rom-com about a personal assistant (which would have given the film a real zing) or about a seasoned professional at an artistic and emotional crossroads in her career, particularly given just how fantastic Ross is in the lead. That could have been some film.

The spark between Johnson (excellent as ever) and Harrison Jnr (also excellent as ever) is electric and again adds credence to the fact that had this just been about them in their world you could have fully gotten on board with it. As it is, it just doesn’t quite work despite their best efforts. In these crazy times, though, The High Note provides some respite and its charismatic cast do enough to keep you entertained and distracted from the madness on our doorsteps.

★★ 1/2

Drama, Music | USA, 2020 | 12A | 29th May 2020 (UK) | Digital HD, VOD | Universal Pictures | Dir.Nisha Ganatra | Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Ice Cube, Bill Pullman, Kelvin Harrison Jnr

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