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— Nicole Kidman, Birthday Girl

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The Fifth Estate

One of the year's most exciting movies. —Matt Anderson (review...)

Cumberbatch assumes he's the Fifth Estate

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The High Note is off key and out of tune.

All the Way Up

David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Maggie (Dakota Johnson)
David (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Maggie (Dakota Johnson)

There are so many great, great movies that feature music as a central character, as a guiding light for emotions and passions. The Commitments, High Fidelity, Moulin Rouge!, Once, Sing Street, Rocketman — to name only a handful. Whether the music is a collection of cover tunes or original songs, those movies successfully create a symbiosis between film and music.

In comparison, The High Note is like a strange love child between Luanne Rice and William Hung. It simply doesn’t resonate and it’s hard to listen to.

The story is simple. Maggie Sherwood (Dakota Johnson, The Peanut Butter Falcon) toils away for three years as an assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, TV’s Black-ish), an 11-time Grammy winner struggling to maintain relevance in an industry infatuated with youth. Maggie is at turns treated well and kicked aside by Grace; through it all, Maggie perseveres with big dreams of becoming a music producer.

That’s the gist of the setup. Throw in a cranky, self-serving manager named Jack Robertson (Ice Cube, Friday) and a velvet-voiced street singer named David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Luce) and there should be a fetching mix of drama, conflict and music. Lotsa music.

But, strangely enough, this movie about music doesn’t really have that much music in it. Instead, it settles for some remarkably generic new songs and a stunningly bland score.


The High Note plays like a movie that started out with some big ambitions that ultimately never came to fruition. Rather than being an insightful and entertaining look at the music industry, it seems as though all the personality was sucked out of the production in favor of something that seems perfectly suited for the Hallmark Channel.

Maggie demonstrates all sorts of music knowledge and there is a bit of music savvy in some of the dialogue — particularly in a conversation between Maggie and Jack, whose self-serving ambitions are focused on a Vegas residency and rehashing the oldies. Jack argues nobody wants to hear new Bruce Springsteen offerings like Wrecking Ball while Maggie counters the argument — quite accurately — that the album was a well-received work of art.

But therein are also a couple of the movie’s problems. For one, Ice Cube is unusually grating. More typically, he’s a force of energy when he’s on screen; it’s a sign of The High Note’s diluted ambitions that here he comes across as merely a one-note wonder — and one that’s off pitch, to boot.

In the thick of all the conversations about music — Grace’s humble beginnings in dive bars, her desire to keep touring, the challenges of being a 40-something black musician — there are also references to pop culture icons. In addition to Springsteen, there’s Celine Dion, Cardi B, Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. What this movie needed was their presence, not just their reference.

Think about Springsteen’s cameo in High Fidelity and Bono in Entropy or Across the Universe. The pop factor — pun intended — of a couple cameos would’ve helped this one cross the bridge between fiction and reality.

The Low Note

But even some stellar cameos wouldn’t be enough to rescue The High Note in full.

The nice moments are few and far between. At the top of the (short) list, though, is a scene in which young hopeful David is in a recording studio with Maggie. There’s no passion in his singing. It’s rote. Then she tells him the microphone he’s singing into was once used by Sam Cooke. That’s the inspiration he needed to get some soul into his cords. Still, that passion isn’t on par with Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born; even with that movie’s sizable warts, Cooper and Lady Gaga have a chemistry and a passion that makes the movie work. And A Star Is Born has something else that’s missing in The High Note: worthwhile original songs that can stand on their own.

Aside from that, though, there’s a picture postcard element that makes The High Note rather insufferable. There’s no real drama, just some backhanded compliments and a couple huge egos getting in the way of Maggie’s dreams. And, when she’s kicked to the curb, she does what pretty much everybody else does when they’re down and out. She endures through a few days in Catalina. With her dad. Who hosts a radio show. Before everything falls right into place.

It’s clear director Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) is more comfortable with short-form episodic TV than driving feature-length narratives. But the faults are not all on her. First-time screenwriter Flora Greeson has some good ideas lurking in the conversations, but she repeatedly settles for the simple. For the Hallmark moment. The story that wants to be — and should be — told remains buried under the gloss of a calculated narrative (complete with a rather silly surprise ending that pulls all of Maggie’s efforts together way too tidily).

The story that went missing is the one about maintaining relevance in a world of disposable music. And that challenge is even greater for a former chart-topper like Grace, who faces an uphill battle in a field where (at least according to the movie) only five women over 40 have had a number one album. And only one of them was black.