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Non-Review Review: The High Note

The High Note doesn’t quite manage to hit the peak that it title suggests, but it hits most of the notes that it needs to.

The basic plot of The High Note concerns a personal assistant named Maggie who works for Grace Davis. Davis is a singer in the twilight years of her career, working hard to remain relevant and to stay afloat in an industry that seems ready to cast her aside. Maggie is convinced that her boss (and her idol) is capable of delivering so much more than her management and her record label expect of her, but finds herself trapped in an uphill battle to prove that she has a vision that is worth listening to.

She’s got the juice.

There are any number of obvious comparisons to be made with The High Note. The classic underappreciated-working-stiff-is-finally-recognised-as-a-prodigious-talent narrative unfolding against a Hollywood backdrop obviously evokes any of the myriad (official and unofficial) versions of A Star is Born. However, the emphasis within that template on a demanding ageing female star and the younger woman working under her feels like it is somewhat carried over from Nisha Ganatra’s previous film, Late Night.

The High Note is tremendously predictable, but it’s to the credit of Flora Greeson’s screenplay that the movie understands this. There are very few surprises nestled in the story, but The High Note leans into that. It is a surprisingly and endearing gentle movie about the path to stardom, one that keeps its stakes low and which tempers its formula with just enough self-awareness to avoid feeling stale or rehashed. The High Note is solid, sturdy and appealing – even if it seems to reflect the Grace Davis that audiences see, rather than the one that Maggie aspires towards.

Tune in for more…

There is something vaguely interesting in how The High Note tweaks the formula of A Star is Born for the millennial generation. Maggie clearly longs for success in show business, but she is not picked from obscurity working a dead-end job outside the industry. Her talent isn’t even particularly acknowledged or celebrated by those inside the industry. Instead, Maggie works a thankless job in the shadow of fame and fortune, one that appears to demand incredibly long hours and exhausting physical labour, all while toiling in the background silently.

Of course, The High Note makes it clear that Maggie is employed and compensated by Grace for the work that she does, even if her salary seems unlikely to reflect her value. On seeing Maggie’s car, a drunken Grace jokes, “Your boss needs to give you a raise!” Maggie interacts with the other people caught in Grace’s orbit, like the perpetual hanger-on Gail, who insists that tethering herself to Grace could pay dividends in hand-me-downs. “You live in the pool house,” Maggie replies. Gail responds, “And you could, too. If you’re lucky.”

Growing old with Grace…

As such, more indirectly than directly, Maggie seems to reflect some of the anxieties and uncertainties of her generation. Maggie’s situation is not too uncommon from the stories whispered in Hollywood about the absurd amount of labour that personal and executive assistants do for their employers, often for trivial remuneration and the promise of a shot at advancement that never materialises. (Although it is odd to make the comparison in the context of a review of a feel-good rom-com star-is-born film, The Assistant is built around this idea as well.)

More than that, The High Note consciously blurs the boundaries between Maggie’s personal and professional lives in ways that perhaps reflect the more complex dynamics between millennials and celebrities. Maggie is not just Grace’s personal assistant, she is a huge fan of Grace. Maggie adores Grace, and her function as fan and hype woman often blur. She manages Grace’s social media. In her spare time, Maggie remixes Grace’s live recordings. Indeed, when The High Note suggests that Maggie aspires to be a producer, it suggests that she aspires to produce for Grace.

The most personal assistant.

There’s a lot to unpack there, and The High Note largely avoids digging too deeply or too aggressively into those blurred boundaries and the recurring sense that Grace has (whether consciously or not) found a way to leverage Maggie’s worship of her into a degree of labour that is of much higher value than the figure on her paychecks. The High Note isn’t interested in deconstructing or analysing this evolving relationship between fan and employee, nor about the uncomfortable levels of intimacy expected of this sort of dynamic given the power play within it.

To be fair to The High Notes, there are moments when the film broaches just enough self-awareness to get away with avoiding that deep dive. Although The High Note isn’t necessarily bloodthirsty or ruthless enough to give Maggie the sort of reality check that one might expect from a more cynical study of celebrity, the film does repeatedly underscore that Maggie’s planned career arc is a romantic fantasy rather than an approach that is likely to generate any meaningful results.

Music to her ears.

“You’re not her friend,” warns Katie, Maggie’s roommate. (In a nice recurring joke that further plays into this sense of self-awareness, Maggie’s pursuit of fame and fortune is gently played off Katie’s career as a doctor. After seeing a photo of Katie performing open heart surgery, Maggie confesses to a friend, “Everything we do is meaningless.”) When Maggie does make a bold and ambitious play to step into the role of producer, Grace’s manager Jack Robertson is quick to caution her, “It don’t happen like this.”

The High Note repeatedly plays with the idea that Maggie believes herself to be the lead in a story similar to A Star is Born. At one point, constructing an elaborate plot to earn a new act a high-profile gig, she pitches a scheme to Ocean’s 11 the young artist’s way on to the playbill. She describes in great detail exactly how she envisages the manipulation unfolding, even ending her pitch with the instruction, “Roll credits.” There’s something gently but firmly subversive in the way that The High Note refuses to play out exactly as Maggie expects.

Staging her next career move.

Of course, The High Note doesn’t entirely reject these clichés. It just opts for a slightly different set. It would be too much to refer to The High Note as a particularly insightful or brutal commentary on these sorts of rags-to-riches narrative. After all, the path that Maggie eventually follows to her dream is hardly more developed or more convincing than the one that The High Note so softly ridicules. There is a sense in which these little acknowledgements serve as a fig leaf, a way to add just enough shading to a well-worn cliché to make it workable in a modern context.

There is an appealing gentleness to The High Note, particularly in its treatment of both Maggie and Grace. Both characters are given distinctive perspectives and motivations, with the film carrying a great deal of affection for both. It’s notable that even the obligatory “older artist stuck in a creative rut” plot elements are cushioned to avoid any sharp edges. “Lucky her songs are good, or we’d have died of them by now,” reads one review of an early concert, the kind of review that Jackson Maine would have killed for in A Star is Born.

Driving ambition.

This gentleness robs The High Note of any real tension. There is never any real prospect that things are going to end poorly for either Maggie or Grace. Everything in the film seems to unfold precisely as it needs to, in order to ensure that the audience is never too uncomfortable or too unsettled by anything they see on screen. While there is a hint of self-awareness to the film’s path-to-stardom story, the central romance between Maggie and a young artist named David hits all of the requisite beats at all the expected points – and hinges on a gigantic coincidence.

Still, it’s hard to react too forcefully or too cynically to The High Note, in large part because that gentleness feels very much like a charm offensive. As with Ganatra’s previous film, the heart of The High Note is a conflict between a young ambitious woman and her older established mentor, hinging on the chemistry between the two. Dakota Johnson is great as Maggie, bringing an appealing charisma to a role that could easily be thankless. However, Johnson doesn’t share the same chemistry with Tracee Ellis Ross that Mindy Kaling had with Emma Thompson in Late Night.

Cool as a Cube.

This is a minor problem. Ross is engaging enough in her own right, and Ganatra works very well with the cast. Highlights include a charmingly comic supporting performance from Ice Cube, which handily demonstrates why the actor has spent so much of his cinematic career working in comedy. Again, there’s something just slightly self-aware in casting Ice Cube as a somewhat cynical musical manager – just as there’s something a little cheeky in having Ocean’s 13 star Eddie Izzard introduce himself by declaring, “I love Ocean’s 11.”

The High Note is solid and sturdy, reliably and efficiently constructed. It is smart enough to know how to pitch itself, and so skirts the edges of some interesting ideas rather than committing to them, and delivering largely what audiences expect from a film like this with only a patina of self-awareness. Lucky of the execution of these familiar clichés is good, or we’d have died of them by now.

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