Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
‘They don’t make them like they used to’ is a sentence that you frequently hear when someone talks about older movies, but when something like The High Note is released, it can’t help but make you realise that they don’t even make movies like this enough anymore.
While music biopics are still a thing, and frequently shown as being an appealing prospect for Hollywood studios (we’ve got a Leonard Bernstein biopic from Bradley Cooper on the way), the type of mid-budgeted film with great screenplays and talented on-screen performers doing their thing in stories a million miles away from the bombast of superhero films are sadly all too rare in our cinemas.
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Whilst something like A Star is Born can fall through the cracks, you get the sense a film like Bradley Cooper’s 2018 critical and box office hit only got the green light because Warner Bros. was only comfortable with it because it was a remake of a film that has been made numerous times before. Character-driven dramas and romantic comedies seldom seem to get produced for the silver screen in the same way anymore, with these types of films having to opt for streaming services such as Netflix, Prime Video, or even Apple TV.
A film like the recent Best Picture winner Coda could possibly have been a huge box office draw ten or fifteen years ago, but now it’s part of the endless ‘content’ that is amongst the many services that we pay to get into our homes, blasted not over the television airwaves, but through our wifi devices. That’s not to say that everything playing in our cinemas is just superhero films, sequels, remakes and reboots, but it frequently has started to feel that way more than anything.
This is a long way to saying that The High Note is the type of film they don’t make enough of anymore: two great leads, a fantastic supporting cast, a wonderful script, and a film that doesn’t get dramatic juice from buildings exploding and costume design taking their cues from the pages of a comic book. It’s a lovely slice of comedy-drama that draws you into its orbit and engrosses you with its character dynamics, wit, and dramatic beats all the way to its end credits. It’s a film I absolutely love.
Like Late Night, director Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, The High Note feels like a lovely reminder of a forgotten age when directors such as James L Brooks or Garry Marshall would deliver lovely little star vehicles with witty wordplay, engaging moments of drama and even lovelier moments of levity. The High Note feels like a brilliant companion piece of sorts to Ganatra’s previous film; it’s centred around a mentor/mentee relationship of sorts against a pop-cultural background and has much to say about the modern world without ever getting preachy about it. You can read between the lines and the film just gets on with being a tremendously witty drama, but is never oblivious to its more important themes.
Best of all, the casting is perfect. Tracee Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson have wonderful tension-filled chemistry as the singing superstar and the PA who has ambitions and dreams of her own. Yes, the film treads down some well-worn paths as far as the narrative beats are concerned, but if you play the hits well then the results can be great, and The High Note benefits from having a sharp screenplay from Flora Greeson that captures the nuances of its characters with grace and dramatic aplomb.
Yes, there are moments when things go off the rails for its characters, but this being the type of film that it is, it all ends up with a bow on top and order restored, but what is also so fantastic here is how it filters its lead character as just part of a chain that comes in the music industry. More often than not we follow the superstars at the centre of a film like this, maybe even touch upon the working lives of the record executives, but never the PA, the ones that have to fetch the coffee or get the dry cleaning. It gives Greeson’s script a more grounded viewpoint against the prism of big songs, commercial success and grandiose stage performance, but never for one minute makes Ross’s character too big for her boots.
Yes, she has her moments when her ego is an issue, but she is also a black woman attaining commercial success in a world where she had to work harder for it. It would have been so easy to make for a more antagonistic figure, and for audiences to think ‘oh no, poor Dakota Johnson’ but it never falls into the realm of simplicity in that manner and gains so many of its best moments in the small details behind the bigger dramatic scenes.
Best of all, while it might leave one pondering why films like this are becoming all too rare nowadays, refreshingly the entire endeavour is purely feminine in a way that forerunners of this type of film sometimes weren’t. Written by a woman, directed by a woman and starring two brilliant actresses, they may not make them like they used to, but when they do get made, they’re doing so through the viewpoint of female filmmakers and characters in a way that was all too rare in the past and for that, it makes The High Note something even better and more unique.