Updated: Jul 14, 2020
In The High Note, directed by Nisha Ganatra, Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is living the definition of a dream come true. A “walking encyclopedia” on music, she works as a personal assistant for Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an older mega-superstar singer who Maggie’s admiration for has been lifelong- she even had posters of her on her bedroom wall when she was a kid. Despite her quiet desperation to be Grace’s friend and her deep reverence for her music, Maggie wants more from her life and the music industry than to pick up coffee and sort through clothes, and so when she meets the talented and charming but unknown singer David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), she finagles her way into working as his producer. Grace, meanwhile, has not produced new music in over a decade, and she struggles with the dilemma of wanting to release something new despite being cornered by her team into the more secure route of Vegas residency performing her old hits.
There is much to love about The High Note, which is why it was disappointing to see that most of these promising attributes ultimately fell a little flat. The cast is incredibly talented. Tracee Ellis Ross gives a fantastically nuanced performance in which you can see so much of the character’s thought and feeling on her face even in short moments where she is given little to say. But this nuance seems to exist out of necessity rather than purposeful choice by the filmmakers. There is nothing wrong with the choice to have moments of a story and character exist in an implicit, dialogue-free subtext, but there is a difference between these moments being shot with intent, given the space to breathe, and these moments arising out of a skilled actor being given too little screen time. These subtleties feel rushed within the film, and while they are a credit to Ross, they are also a reflection of how underutilized her character is within the script.
Dakota Johnson’s Maggie, however, is given more focus, and she is effortlessly charming, natural, and funny without playing into caricatures of the overworked people-pleasing assistant. At the same time, she lacks the intensity necessary to make the audience truly invested in her. The premise of the film is that Maggie is deeply passionate about her work but conflicted about which direction to go in. Yet she rarely seems more than a little distressed and makes difficult choices with ease (take, for example, the moment when she boldly insults a producer in front of her bosses without a second thought despite her status as a mere personal assistant). This is not to say that she should have appeared constantly panicked; Johnson has a refreshing natural confidence that she plays the character with. But it seems as though the stakes of her situation feel low to her even though they should be very high, perhaps as a result of inconsistency in the script, and this made it difficult both to care about her and to believe that she even requires our care and concern to begin with.
The same lack of intensity carries over to the relationship between the two characters. Throughout the majority of the film, Grace is neither a true friend to Maggie nor a cold and demanding tyrant, the two bouncing between different levels of warmth and equality. Again, there is nothing wrong with nuance, but the relationship was not strong enough for me to have any particular opinion on it. Compare to the similar boss/assistant duo in The Devil Wears Prada, where Streep and Hathaway’s characters also have a tumultuous and complex relationship, but there is an almost immediate visceral and toxic magnetism between them that makes it so compelling. It is this level of chemistry that Maggie and Grace are typically missing, the dynamic more undecided, and while they finally almost get there by the end of the film, it is too little too late considering that the relationship is supposed to be at the heart of the film. The Maggie and Grace plot line also feels incompletely woven in with the romantic subplot with Maggie and David. Harrison Jr’s David is a delight to watch- charismatic, with a beautiful voice, and his chemistry with Johnson is sweet and believable. But their romantic plot and the dramatic plot with Maggie and Grace take away from each other rather than lend to each other; there were times that I wished the whole movie was about Maggie and David rather than Grace, and vice versa. Both plots are enjoyable but neither are fully fleshed out enough to be satisfying.
Perhaps more than anything else, the biggest missed opportunity was with the film’s more serious themes. As Grace is a middle-aged Black woman, she very clearly deals with the racism, sexism, and ageism prevalent in the music industry, and it is largely unspoken that these prejudices are what limit her in terms of releasing new music. There is one line in which Grace says it outright, but I wished that her thoughts and feelings on the matter were more frequently woven throughout the film. Certainly there is a fine line between showcasing an issue and being preachy, and I understand the screenwriters’ desire to keep the film relationship centered. But the subtlety goes a bit too far, and I would have been interested to see the issue dealt with in a more head on manner and with more frequency, both because it is an important issue worth confronting and because it would have given the film more bite.
All of this being said, The High Note is an enjoyable film with sweetness, laughs, and good music. But it is for this reason that I wished stronger choices had been made with more commitment given to them. There was so much potential in the wonderful cast, mix of original and classic music, and crowd-pleasing romcom and career-drama tropes. While I believe there was an attempt at nuance and complexity, it manifested as a scattering and watering down of components instead of the finely tuned story that it deserved to be. If each element had been given enough weight and time to be fully explored and appreciated, the film could have been unique and rewatchable instead of just a fun and casual one-time viewing.