Film reviews

The High Note – Film Review

Director Nisha Ganatra’s latest two films, 2019’s Late Night and 2020’s The High Note, are basically palette-swaps of one another.  They are, fundamentally, the same exact movie, both of them lifting the template of the 2006 classic The Devil Wears Prada where a wide-eyed idealist hopes to make it big in their chosen profession whilst struggling along as an assistant to a crotchety diva-ish female boss who may in fact have a more sensitive side than their cold confrontational exterior gives off.

In Late Night, that assistant was Mindy Kaling’s freshly-hired late-night comedy writer working for the demanding and aloof host Emma Thompson.  In High Note, the assistant is Dakota Johnson as Maggie, a young woman with dreams of becoming a superstar producer currently in year three of a thankless personal assistant role to veteran R&B singer Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), a highly successful artist who tours frequently but hasn’t released any new material in more than a decade.

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Both of those movies attempt to tie their premises to hot button real world issues in their specific showbiz bubbles.  Institutional sexism, institutional ageism, institutional racism, and how all three of those intersect.  Industry hegemony and discriminatory expectations of how women are supposed to be in these environments.  How the road to success is not about fluking your way into one big hit or co-sign at the right time, instead taking consistent hard work cos such wacky schemes can backfire hard.  How personal assistants would very much like to not be treated like garbage.

But both movies are also extremely reticent to actually, like, deal with these topics in the slightest.  They both have characters espouse about these issues in dialogue during dramatic scenes, only to never have them face the effects, consequences or even any examples of these issues during the narratives themselves.  For doing so would run counter to their primary intended existence as escapist semi-inspirational comfort food.

For the life of me, I still cannot figure out why Ganatra and her screenwriters (Kaling for Late Night and newcomer Flora Greeson for High Note) feel such an incessant need to keep badly spiking their comfort food with these threats of a more complex and socially-conscious movie they have absolutely no intention on following through.  It’s especially the case with High Note because Ganatra’s direction goes all-in on the postcard sheen fantasy look even before you start factoring in things like how seemingly everybody in the movie has a poolside house, access to prime studio recording time and equipment with no questions asked, is rich-as-frak and connected to everyone else in the narrative, and certain shenanigans-laden plans luck into going off without a hitch with zero lasting consequences for no discernible reason.  There’s a glossy aspirational bloom covered coating to literally everything Ganatra shoots that, whilst the film is budget-conscious (costing only $20 million), makes it all look super expensive, like one long advert for the Los Angeles of your wildest fantasies.

But it’s like Ganatra and her team feel weirdly sorta guilty about such escapist capitalist high-calorie fluff.  So, every time the film settles into its proudly generic and mildly cheesy groove – you can time all of the story beats to the second on first go-through, High Note even has the exact same third-act “boss meets assistant at their more modest home for apology” beat as Late Night delivered in exactly the same way – it then has to jarringly have Ice Cube as Grace’s manager lecture Maggie about how a big dramatic standing-up-for-herself speech Maggie just gave to a douchebag remixer was actually a major black mark on her prospective career cos now she and Grace have one less industry professional to network with.  Or how Grace’s not-so-secret desire to finally record a new album is stymied by the simple fact that women over 40 do not score hits because of sexist ageism, not to mention her being black.  Or how it’s weird that Maggie’s prospective boyfriend and outside-industry musical discovery David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) lives in this hillside palacio despite never working and only gigging for bar mitzvahs and outside local shops.

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That last one, by the by, is subject to the film’s one big twist which forces the insecure identity crisis and raging disconnect at its core to almost overflow completely.  Every so often, High Note will break from its comfort film safe zone to throw out one of those nuggets and make the viewer go “oh, shit, maybe we’re going somewhere richer with this”, only to just never touch it again afterwards.  It’s allergic to lasting consequences because those would spoil the broth, so these nods to the more socially-conscious or industry-knowledgeable narrative implications turn out to just be illusions of a non-existent depth.  They’re when a major-label artist spends an album cycle having a touristy go at faking indie; it’s awkward, an ill-fitting look on them, and actively detracts from the feel-good comfort they’re so good at providing for no discernible gain.

Because, despite how all of that may sound, I actually had a lot of fun with The High Note whenever it managed to stop getting in its own way.  Unlike Late Night, this one does actually work as fun escapist comfort food for a few important reasons.  The first being that, unlike the film set in late-night comedy, it’s actually pretty funny on a semi-regular basis and has less of a Sorkin-esque reverential overinflated image of the kind of art its characters are making.

It’s shot a lot better, too.  Ganatra’s previous lacked any semblance of style and did a frankly abysmal job at communicating the passage of time, but as mentioned there’s a strong effort at style here whilst Amie Doherty’s editing provides a solid pulse and playful beat to proceedings.  Numerous times, Ganatra, Doherty and cinematographer Jason McCormick will utilise a combination of editing and expanding previously tight shots for a visual gag or to communicate the whirlwind grind of Maggie and Grace’s lives and those are effects which worked completely on me no matter how often they go back to that well.

High Note also has much more interesting and likeable characters than Late Night did.  The dynamic between Maggie and Grace, in particular, may never dig too deeply into them psychologically, but the characterisations are strong and enjoyable to watch whilst the certain specific ways in which their boss-assistant relationship has all sorts of arbitrary landmines and no-go-zones carries a grounding ring of (if not authenticity then) research that makes the drama work and prevents it from veering off into caricatured fantasy.

The cast help immensely, mind.  Dakota Johnson, as proven back in How to Be Single, is effortlessly good at the charismatically awkward not-quite-a-rom-com leading lady role, just turning that charm up to mega-watt levels.  There are scene-stealing bit-part turns from June Diane Raphael as Grace’s other less capable or ambitious assistant and Zoë Chao as the obligatory best friend with no actual character traits and who doesn’t do much yet still gets the funniest lines regardless.  And, oh hey, it’s Kelvin Harrison, Jr. once again providing his “why in God’s name am I not a giant mega-star already?” stump speech by taking what should be a relatively bland male love interest role and also turning his natural charm up to mega-watt levels, sharing great chemistry with Johnson.

(Also, on a more specific to me critical note: you give me two attractive leads whose flirting sessions consist almost entirely of playfully combative music nerd-offs most other people would find utterly insufferable, and I will eat that sh*t all the way up.  Yes, I will gladly take another slice of ranking songs about California with a side dish of sh*tting on Eagles, thanks!)

So, this write-up is rather lopsided, as you can tell, especially for a film I, again, actually rather enjoyed.  Truth be told, if High Note hadn’t infrequently spent its time gesturing vaguely in the direction of social and thematic depth it had no desire to meaningfully wrestle with, instead only distracting from the bubbly froth of the film at large in ways which cause this bitter after-sensation of tonal confusion, my review would likely have consisted of nothing but the previous two paragraphs plus some more ribbing that the film is basically a better Late Night.  Also, an acknowledgment that the original songs, whilst not bad, aren’t much more than just fine – in other words, I didn’t need the credits roll to figure out that the big awards bait-y closing number was a Greg Kurstin co-write.  Hell, I’d probably even have stuck a full extra star on the score, to boot!

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There’s not a whole lot to The High Note but it is very good at providing charming feel-good fuzzies of the kind I refuse to discount or knock the value of whilst *gestures to the abyss outside* is going on.  I just don’t know why Ganatra is incapable of accepting that and not self-sabotaging the escapist semi-cheesy fun by planting seeds for a more challenging and slightly bitter movie which will never blossom.

The High Note is available to buy now on Digital, and on DVD from 31st August from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.

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