The High Note 2020 ****

Films about those fortunate enough to work in the music industry are easy to get wrong; for every towering achievement like A Star Is Born, there’s a dozen like Begin Again, stories seeming tone deaf to any sense of reality. Fortunately, Working Title’s follow-up to last year’s global hit Yesterday has a more subtle angle than most to work; as with both A Star is Born and Yesterday, the subject is authenticity, and The High Note manages to examine the difficulties in finding and developing musical direction without revelling in too many industry clichés.

When reviewing her performance in the 50 Shades movies, I described Dakota Johnson as a laughing stock, but I’ll eat my words here; she gives an open, empathetic, winning performance here as Maggie, an L.A. based P.A. to multi-Grammy winning diva Grace Davis (freshly played by Tracee Ellis Ross from Blackish). Maggie has enjoyed and endured three years of feeding her boss’s desire for comfort and reassurance, but when she comes across David Cliff, a talented young singer she discovers performing outside a grocery store, Maggie begins to think that her own personal dream of producing might be the way forward.

There are a number of cherish-able scenes here; as Grace enters a music-business meeting a flunky simpers ‘My mom is more excited about me meeting you than she was about me graduating from Sanford University’. Grace responds with, well, grace, but Flora Greeson’s script captures the awkward brand of humble-brag self-promotion and obsequiousness that’s rife in the business. Similarly, as romance blooms, David accuses Maggie of ‘interrupting herself’ and Maggie accuses David of ‘self-sabotage’; there’s some kind of kinship in their frustrated dreams, and also recognition that the ingrained attitudes of these wannabes are the first barrier to their own success. This sets the scene for a success of sorts; Maggie and David want to establish themselves on their own terms, but Grace, who is not drawn in a cartoonish way, has already done enough work on herself that her existence stands in their way until the final scenes.

Nisha Gantara’s film pulls out a few wild cards in the form of likable late-in-the-game cameos; Eddie Izzard as a wayward exec, Bill Pullman as Maggie’s DJ dad. And there’s also nice, knowing work from Ice Cube and Diplo as hangers-on; a scene in which they indulge in casual macho-badinage in front of the ladies skewers a music business problem without resorting to caricature. One of the big pluses here is seeing Kelvin Harrison Jr after his blistering breakout performance in Waves; he’s compelling as the ingénue that Maggie believes in. But while The High Note’s plot twist is fairly obvious from the start, the glitz, the on-point needle-drops (from Cat Stevens to Sam Cooke) and great perormances from two strong female leads make The High Note an absorbing, entertaining journey of self-discovery. And yes, this is a major studio film about women, written and directed by women; it brings a fresh eye to familiar material, and that should be music to the ears of today’s entertainment-starved audiences.

The High Note hits streaming worldwide on May 28th 2020.

Thanks to NBC Universal for access to this film.

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