Editor's Note: Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.
“The High Note” is the latest would-be theatrical release got go straight to On Demand. It’s arguable that it should have gone straight to On Demand, since it might not have been able to cut it in theaters. I know stars Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross have their fan bases, but this middling showbiz movie was going to get squashed by whatever summer blockbuster was being pushed that weekend. Likewise, it probably can’t expect the same On Demand success that “Trolls World Tour” and “Scoob!” enjoyed, since those franchises had sizeable built-in audiences, but it surely will enjoy a modicum of success playing the “only new game in town” angle.
Johnson stars as Maggie Sherwoode, the overworked assistant to music superstar Grace Davis (Ross, playing a character she insists is not based on her mother Diana Ross, but comparisons are unavoidable). Maggie is happy to serve Grace and bask in her presence, but she wants to do more in the music industry, specifically become a producer. She’s outspoken on steps Grace should take in her career, which angers Grace’s manager Jack (Ice Cube), who wants the star to settle into a financially-secure but creatively unfulfilling Vegas residency. She further angers Jack by offering Grace a recording of one of her greatest hits that she produced personally, which Grace prefers to the one produced by Jack’s arrogant high-profile choice (Diplo). Jack chides Maggie for using Grace to further her own career as a producer, even though he’s being equally selfish in his management career.
In her sparse free time, Maggie meets a talented singer named David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and decides that she wants to produce his music. She lies and says she’s a professional producer (the amateur work she did on that one Grace track does not count), and he agrees to confront his performance anxiety in order to take a shot at his dream. It should go without saying that Maggie and David’s interest in one another goes beyond music. It should also go without saying that this is the kind of movie where the main character’s lies and arrogance eventually catch up to her and she has to rebuild her relationships with both Grace and David. Does she have the hard work and determination to pull it off? Did we see her working hard for Grace early in the movie?
Johnson is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect for a movie like this, but the real draw here is Ross. For most of the movie, she plays exactly the kind of character I expected as well: a kooky diva (she’s not quite clear on the concept of getting food via drive-thru) who’s usually nice, but has little tolerance for dissent or failure. She’s humanized toward the end when she realizes that she needs to let go of some arrogance of her own, and I was impressed with Ross in these scenes. I was also impressed by her singing, which is merely alluded to in early stages of the film and caused me to question if Ross was cast for her ability to play a celebrity and not her ability to play a singer. All was well by the end.
“The High Note” is a light, inoffensive, mostly-predictable movie, save for one sharp turn that seems like a cheat. I’ll be surprised if Ross doesn’t get nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress – Musical or Comedy (assuming that this non-theatrical movie qualifies for a Golden Globe and they even give out awards for this year). This movie isn’t going to rock anybody’s world, but if you’re in the mood for soft and stable, it’s a fine choice.
“The High Note” is available On Demand through streaming services and likely through your local cable provider. The film is rated PG-13 for some strong language and suggestive references. Its running time is 113 minutes.