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The High Note: Pleasant Rom-Com at Exactly the Wrong Time

The High Note aims for frizzy romantic comedy fun, but is held back by too casual a treatment of thorny racial issues.

It is invariably true that films exist in the context where we view them. The reality is that a seismic shift in race relations has transpired over the last two weeks in the United States. The murder of yet another unarmed black man by police has led to a wave of civil unrest not seen in the country since the tumult of 1968. George Floyd’s death has forced a national dialogue about the systemic inequalities that continue to oppress people of color in the United States. I live in New York City, just a few blocks away from Union Square, which has seen many of the most fraught interactions between police and citizens. I simply cannot divorce everything that is happening in the real world from the movies I am watching.

Even a few weeks ago, The High Note might have really hit the spot as a pleasant escapist romantic comedy. It is full of charming, charismatic actors who seem engaged with the material. Dakota Johnson (50 Shades of Grey) plays an aspiring music producer currently working as a personal assistant to an aging music star named Grace Davis, played by Tracee Ellis Ross (ABC’s black-ish). The film wisely sets up their relationship as a warmer version of The Devil Wears Prada. The High Note’s early scenes are spent introducing the viewer to the life of a personal assistant to a big star: from racing around town to pick up custom juice blends to gassing up Grace’s cars, the audience is given a quick, effective primer to a non-stop lifestyle. 

Soon, she meets a boy in a supermarket. In the film’s best scene, the two banter about music minutiae as they wander the store. The boy, played by the immensely charismatic Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves, Luce), begins his flirtation by crooning the theme song from The O.C. as it plays on the store radio. As they banter about the best California songs in the frozen foods aisle, the chemistry between the actors is readily apparent. They make for a likable couple and a fun romance.

Loud and Clear reviews The High Note
Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in The High Note (Glen WIlson/Focus Features LLC)

Unfortunately, it is nigh impossible for me to divorce this movie from its white savior narrative. Johnson’s character, we learn, has been secretly producing a live album of Grace Davis hits with the hope of catching her boss’ eye as something more than an assistant. Her love interest is also a talented musician and, of course, she sees the chance to produce his music. It is no spoiler to say that her production aspirations eventually lead to success for the artists. It is simply impossible to ignore how off it feels that a young white woman is explaining to an incredibly successful black woman and a young black man how to make their music better. I cannot help but think that Johnson’s relative star power – and her appeal to white audiences – is what led to the casting. For what is otherwise flighty, escapist faire, the film strikes precisely the wrong note on race and it weighs down the whole film. 

It really is too bad, because there is a lot to appreciate in The High Note. Ross absolutely digs into the diva role here. She’s a credible musical performer and brings oodles of charisma to the screen. Johnson and Harrison evince a real chemistry – so many times the film cut away from their banter to attend to some plot machination, when I just wanted to watch two good actors playing off one another. Ice Cube (Three Kings] brings sly humor and surprising gravity to the role of Grace Davis’ longtime manager. His skills are put to excellent use, here. Bill Pullman (Independence Day) and Eddie Izzard (Across the Universe) make lasting impression in minimal screen time.

Maybe someday I will be able to enjoy this sort of crowd-pleasing Nora Ephron-lite filmmaking more, but today is not that day.

The High Note is now available to watch on Digital Release.

The High Note: Official Trailer (Focus Features)
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