Sunday, August 23, 2020


The High Note is a fluffily charming movie that wraps you up in the warm pleasures of its plotting, with exactly the right proportion of predictable to surprising that keeps you interested. It’s two showbiz dramas in one — with an aspiring record producer (Dakota Johnson) trying to get a step up while she’s working as personal assistant to a singer (Tracee Ellis Ross) whose star might be on the decline if she doesn’t try something new soon. Then the whole thing is wrapped up in the embrace of a PG-rated vision of the industry, a showbiz fantasy with sparkling talents and pearly teeth, sweet coincidences, fabulous architecture, and, yes, as Aretha Franklin might say, great gowns. It’s the sort of movie where all the struggling assistant needs is the right sympathetic ear and the right moment — and where her thankless low-paying job still keeps her comfortable in a nice apartment. Besides, the star she’s working for is awfully gentle for a demanding celebrity. She has occasional barbs, but theirs is often a prickly friendship at worst. Even her manger (Ice Cube) is too warm to be threatening, even when he glowers at the young woman to stay in her lane when she criticizes a bigwig producer in the recording studio, overstepping her job title. It’s a comfortable drama, enough to invest in without worrying overmuch it’ll swerve into real pain. It’s a movie where the misunderstandings and disagreements feel just real enough to matter, and just light enough that they’ll melt away at the right moments.

It works because the screenplay by Flora Greeson is cozily built out of its mirrored showbiz tales—fading star meets rising talent, and maybe they can both help each other—and then further draws in elements of family dramas—that the leads are talented second-generation stars adds some extra-textual frisson—and romance while keeping things amusing and heartfelt. The younger woman starts falling for a sweet young singer-songwriter (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), with whom she has a Meet Cute discussion about The O.C.’s theme song. It’s one of those sequences so perfectly, simultaneously fresh and cliche that it’s worth a little swoon as the charming grins spring up on the actors’ faces. And the cast is the ultimate reason why the film works. One could imagine all sorts of lesser talents letting the movie potentially get bogged down in its plotty particulars. Instead, Johnson dances across each line reading with her voice flitting across the dialogue, deftly drawing out insecurities and flirtations, talents and frustrations. She moves with casual caution, wanting to do a good job, but also trying to lean in and get a leg up. Ross, too, is strong. She swaggers with a fine balance of down-to-earth and head-in-the-clouds, passionate about her career, but frustrated by limitations she’s feeling. Not the cold distance of a Devil Wears Prada, she’s often friendly, but capable of cutting with harsh angles. It’s a fine pairing. Director Nisha Ganatra (here much better served by this script than last year’s flat Late Night) gives the film a nice glossy shine, and knows how to trust her talented cast’s inherent charms to enliven the scenes. She’ll hold on a smile, let the bass rattle in the music (a well-curated playlist of decent originals and oldies), and let the chemistry brew. The result is invested in the relationships and plot developments, but has the patience to let them breathe a little. It understands the charm of letting Johnson and Ross sing along to “No Scrubs” while flying down a sunny L.A. street in a convertible, and the satisfaction felt when the characters find exactly what they need.

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