Every week, new original films debut on Netflix, Hulu, and other digital services, often films with modest budgets and limited fanfare. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.
The High Note
The premise: The longtime assistant to an iconic soul singer wants to be a producer, and when she thinks she’s spotted her big break, she goes for it. But the course of chasing your dreams never goes smoothly.
What it’s about: There’s something charmingly old-fashioned about The High Note, a movie that doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is: a comedy about figuring out what you want in life and going for it. Director Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night, was insightful about the kinds of things women do to stay ahead in professional contexts, but it stumbled when it tried to say something significant about the gender imbalance of the late-night comedy world, without a clear understanding of how that world works. The High Note solves the problem not by intricately understanding the ins and outs of the music business, but by simply sidestepping any need to Say Something Important. It’s a fantasy, and that fantasy is fun to watch.
At the center of the fantasy is Grace Jones (Tracee Ellis Ross), a world-renowned soul singer who hasn’t put out a record in 10 years but whose reputation with her legions of fans hasn’t suffered for it. (Ross certainly knows this world; her mother is Motown legend Diana Ross.) She tours with a cadre that includes her manager (Ice Cube) and personal assistant of three years, Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who wants more than anything to be a music producer but is stuck getting coffee and arranging schedules.
Maggie is actually the protagonist of the film, which might have been a bummer — Ross is wonderful to watch — except that Johnson is blessed with charisma to spare, and her line readings turn even clichés into something fresh. One day she meets a charming stranger named David (the always stellar Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a man with an amazing voice but who seems reticent to perform beyond a circuit of low-level gigs. She convinces him to let her produce his first album in her off-hours, without telling him who she works for. That choice, obviously, comes back to bite her.
The High Note is most like a comedy of errors, mixed with a dash of a kinder, gentler The Devil Wears Prada and a bunch of great music. (An early version of the screenplay was titled Covers, and in some ways the film feels like a cover itself.) The genre trappings contribute to a feeling of predictability — you can basically tell where it’s going to go — but aside from a truly head-slapping third-act reveal, the rest of the film is light, sweet, and pleasant, the kind of thing you might have expected to see from a Hollywood studio in the 1990s. The characters are a bit stock, and with a less talented cast it might have been more forgettable.
While The High Note is about ambition, it’s not an overly ambitious film. It doesn’t try to tackle issues that are only hinted at, like the struggles that women (especially middle-aged black women) face in the music industry. Nor does it even pretend to accurately depict the inner workings of that industry. Instead, The High Note opts to be purely enjoyable and isn’t afraid to be a little corny, and thanks to its central performers, it’s entirely charming.
Critical reception: The High Note has garnered moderately positive reviews from critics. At the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday writes: “It’s a movie drenched in catchy pop hooks and aspirational romance. If this iteration doesn’t quite achieve the full liftoff of the best of the form, it still manages to hit more than a few pleasure centers as a summery slice of light escapism.”