Review: The High Note

Year: 2020
Runtime: 110 Minutes
Director: Nisha Ganatra
Writer: Flora Greeson
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ice Cube, Zoë Chao

By Mique Watson

The High Note” is a film that just bursts onto the screen with the explosive firepower of an atomic bomb. This is a film I can confidently say I am absolutely in love with; a film that I am grateful for because of the mere fact of its existence; a film that both took me by surprise and shifted my thoughts and feelings away from the disdainful situation the world is in. A film so comfy, but significant nonetheless–one that feeds the starved appetite of the tired, worn out soul. 

We immediately get introduced to characters we feel like we’ve known our whole lives–both in person, and from a distance. These characters register as people; people who eat, sleep, and breathe their respective crafts. Music, and the appreciation, reverence, and painstaking work behind it is the focus here. This film–despite having enough depth to have it not cast aside as something inconsequential–is escapist, cheerful fun of the highest order. 

We meet Maggie (Dakota Johnson); she has been working for superstar Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross) as a personal assistant for three years. Screenwriter Flora Greeson writes her to be someone who is optimistic and determined in spite of how she is often spoken down to and constantly belittled by the people in Grace’s inner circle. One would wonder if she would receive this treatment if she was a he. And speaking of women in the industry; the film’s writer is a woman and so it it’s director, Nisha Gantara. 

Ice Cube, Ricky Martin, Dakota Johnson, and Tracee Ellis Ross in The High Note (2020) © 2020 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

“The High Note” is a film that just bursts onto the screen with the explosive firepower of an atomic bomb. This is a film I can confidently say I am absolutely in love with; a film that I am grateful for because of the mere fact of its existence.”

Maggie has studied music and has strived to learn from every opportunity she can under Grace’s employ. She’s fiercely loyal and seems to always have Grace’s best interests at heart (even though Grace is supposedly unable to even recall her last name). Grace is a legend in the music industry, but seems to have reached the winter of her career (as have so many women who have reached her age–only the few survive, and naming them would tragically sound about white). So Grace is at a crossroads; should she stick with performing the same old material? Should she settle for yet another Greatest Hits album with remixes on the side? OR should she record another album?

The first thing I did after this magnificent film concluded was get on Spotify and search for the soundtrack–simply put, it’s utterly eargasmic! I was bobbing my head and tapping my feet without a care in the world. Though granted, I did see this in my living room as I was quarantined; but the over physical reaction I had had would’ve been terribly hard to resist had I been in a theater. I wish I’d seen this on a big screen–I wish I had heard these incredible songs on cinema speakers. If by some miracle this gets a theatrical re-release, I will definitely be first in line. Mark. My. Words.

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in The High Note (2020) © 2020 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

“Dakota Johnson is adorable in this; she rarely gets to do comedy–a shame, considering how good her comedic timing is. Her dorkiness and geekiness are utilized to perfection–she certainly isn’t just a pretty face.”

The High Note” made my heart sing, my spirit soar, and my feet float. The joy this damn movie inspires is an oasis in a parched desert of the collective dispirited mood we all seem to be feeling now more than ever. There’s so much beauty and joy here–the scene in particular is when David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) strikes up a conversation with Maggie in a convenience store. They banter for a moment and discuss the best songs that represent California; from The Mamas and the Papas to, all the way to The Eagles. Maggie even has the audacity to call out Don Henley–the lead singer of the eagles–the sheer audacity!

Dakota Johnson and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in The High Note (2020) © 2020 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

I can’t even begin to tell you how well this film captures the beauty of striking up a conversation with someone you find interesting. Heck the entirety of this spectacular picture is an example of this: the grammar of music production may not make sense to most of us, but we’re so overjoyed to just hear these passionate people speaking it!

Dakota Johnson is adorable in this; she rarely gets to do comedy–a shame, considering how good her comedic timing is. Her dorkiness and geekiness are utilized to perfection–she certainly isn’t just a pretty face; she’s as interesting as she is irresistibly gorgeous. The character of Maggie also speaks truth to power to how women are rejected and ridiculed in the cutthroat music industry. It’s tough being a woman in this industry; especially a woman of color above the age of 40–this film makes that abundantly clear. 

The character of Grace is a clear stand-in for every famous woman who has been in this situation. Tracee Ellis-Ross absolutely blew me away in this. We know her to be the daughter of music legend Diana Ross, but over here you bear witness to the raw, glistening and sensationally overpowering talent that is she.

The film’s message? Many good ones: how territorialism in the music industry takes over goodness, decency, and compassion; how important it is to know your worth and not selling yourself short; how taking advantage of others will neither help you nor will you cultivate any meaningful and lasting relationships. And the whole film is so romantically lit; the afternoon golden hour, the natural lighting, the lens flares–utterly sublime!

“The High Note” teaches us about music, sure, but it does so by integrating what it knows into the conversations of its characters in a way that isn’t expository.”

So eventually Maggie seeks to help David find his voice and maximize his full potential. “You’re insecure” she tells him with delight in her voice–she sees this as an opportunity; it’s like being a producer is written in the stars for her. This is a reversal of the trope of the man pushing an insecure woman into the spotlight; Maggie isn’t reduced to moral support… she does certainly slip up and make mistakes along the way.

Ice Cube in The High Note (2020) © 2020 FOCUS FEATURES LLC.

Let’s not forget the rest of the magnificent cast here: this film also stars Kelvin Harrison Jr (previously seen in the film “Luce”, where he gives a deeply chilling performance–he’s upbeat and irresistibly charismatic here!), and a loyal, yet domineering manager played by Ice Cube

Ultimately, this is a love-letter to the people behind the scenes of the music industry. The artists sing, perform, and sometimes write; and most of the times–these guys do all the rest. “The High Note” teaches us about music, sure, but it does so by integrating what it knows into the conversations of its characters in a way that isn’t expository. This film made me forget the outside world for two glorious hours; it made me smile so damn hard my face nearly hurt–I worship at the altar of any movie that can do that. 

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