Nothing grinds my ears like a pitchy singer. That’s because the root of such auditory tragedies functions from a singer just missing the mark, often unaware of their own mistakes. Nisha Ganatra’s The High Note—a romantic-comedy about making it big in the music biz—similarly fails to stay in key. In fact, the film is a mash-up, made up of two disparate stories that never gel into a cohesive composition. Instead, the narrative’s sweet love story—and its interest in unpacking the restrictions women have in the music industry—are overshadowed by unfocused character development and a twist so inconceivable that it defies the logic of even the most ardent fairytale.
The narrative’s opening gambit involves Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross): a world-famous; glamorous; high-maintenance; Diana Ross-like diva; whose visage is plastered on every billboard and magazine in Los Angeles. While you would think Grace is the central protagonist of The High Note, especially since Ross playing a version of her mother should be rich in subtext, instead, the rarely appreciated assistant Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson)—a talented but inexperienced and budding producer with an encyclopedic knowledge of music history—is the lead.
In fact, Maggie’s biggest dream is really to produce one artist in particular, her all-time favorite singer who happens to be her boss. But her plans remain grounded because Grace barely sees her as more than an useful hanger-on—there only to remind her that she’s still the greatest. Conversely, Grace’s former manager Jack (Ice Cube) has returned. He envisions a Vegas residency, and a remix and live greatest hits album in her future. Which means big money, but not new original music. That’s because to everyone around Grace, with the exception of Maggie, she’s past her peak. Which means they think she’s too old to command the same sales, artistic quality, and interest from her fans.
This leads to the first major mistake of The High Note, and it’s the same error Maggie makes: The narrative conflates Grace and Maggie’s pursuits together. This arrangement works tenuously, especially when Maggie begins a romantic relationship with a young aspiring singer-songwriter David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—ultimately becoming his producer. The competing storylines, which I found frustrating, make Ganatra’s film particularly unmoored from nearby emotional landings.
The High Note would work so well as a narrative derived from Maggie trying to resurrect Grace’s career, while Grace herself begins to gain independence as an artist again, realizing that the paradigm assigned by the music industry to women—where they’re considered over-the-hill and relegated to legacy acts far sooner than their male counterparts—operates under archaic and sexist stereotypes. However, the film would work just as well as an us-against-the-world love story, if focused solely upon Maggie and David. As such, the narrative sacrifices one story so the other can flourish. Which means Grace walks, so Maggie’s burgeoning love can run.
Those frustrations aside, Kelvin Harrison Jr. does finally discover some happiness. After playing tortured souls in Julius Onah’s Luce and Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, seeing him as a smitten, crooning—seriously, the man can sing—innocent, and emotionally healthy character is so refreshing. Moreover, Ross offers a chic performance while Dakota Johnson reminds viewers how underrated she remains. In fact, The High Note often peaks whenever Harrison Jr. and Johnson are on screen together. They have a fantastic chemistry, easily enlivening the story’s romance, and making this mish-mash film somewhat watchable. Also, the costumes by Jenny Eagan are resplendent and fresh, casting the actors into the glitz and cool of multi-platinum stardom.
Unfortunately, that’s where my likes dissipate. Instead, I’m reminded of how many of the songs Harrison Jr. sings, though well-sung, are pedestrian at best. The same with Grace’s tunes (a bad sign for a movie about the music business). Moreover, Bill Pullman makes a last second appearance but isn’t afforded any characterization, and a similar complaint could be levied at Maggie’s roommate Katie (Zoe Chao) and Grace’s former assistant Gail (June Diane Raphael), two characters adding nothing but space to an already bloated narrative. Which is The High Note’s plague: There are too many ill-fitting components for any single portion to hit its mark unencumbered. Made evident by a twist, which hopes to meld the two compositions together: Grace’s career and Maggie’s love, that utterly fails at anything more than confusion. Making The High Note tragically off-key.