It seems like filmmakers want to be musicians, and pop stars want to be actors. How else can you explain three versions of A Star is Born being released over the course of 64 years with Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga as wannabe singers? Al Jolson gave us The Jazz Singer in 1927, and Neil Diamond gave us his version in 1980. As recently as 2009, Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic country star on the fade in Crazy Heart.
The glitz and glamour of the music business has always beckoned to writers, directors and actors. Sometimes these films are rags-to-riches tales of success, and sometimes they are cautionary tales about the high price of fame and fortune.
The newest film about the rise and fall of talented musicians is The High Note starring Tracee Ellis Ross (daughter of Diana Ross), Dakota Johnson and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. Ross plays Grace Davis, a performer with a long, storied career who hasn’t had a hit in years and faces the possibility of being put out to pasture with a “residency” in Las Vegas. Dakota Johnson is Maggie, her young assistant who has a talent for working a mixing board and longs to be a producer in her own right. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is an up-and-coming R&B singer who catches Maggie’s ear as he performs impromptu gigs in unlikely places.
If you think that you can guess how these puzzle pieces will ultimately fit together, you’re probably right. My biggest knock on The High Note is its overall lack of originality. You can see each plot beat coming from a mile away.
It feels like a film made by a corporate committee to appeal to the widest demographic possible while taking no narrative chances whatsoever. It’s a 113-minute exercise in Give the audience what it wants. That’s not entirely a bad thing. It just ends up bland.
The High Note also plays like a very strange version of the music business. The film tells the tale of a 48-year-old pop star who sells out arenas across the country but worries that she hasn’t had a new hit record in years. In a world where Beyonce is 38, Katy Perry is 35, and Taylor Swift is 30, Grace Davis would likely be 10 years into that Vegas residency, not just considering it for the first time in her career.
Along with the fact that there are no pop stars approaching 50, albums have become a distant memory, so the premise alone rings false. In the real world, aging performers are clamoring to work with young producers and collaborators who have an ear for modern music, but Grace Davis ignores her talented assistant at every turn even as her career falls apart. Instead, she listens to her manager, played by Ice Cube who sounds like he’s managing Run DMC in the 1980’s.
Memorable films about the music business are always sparked by a great cast. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga dominated the screen in 2018 as star-crossed musicians in love. The audience hung on their every word. Unfortunately, the leads in The High Note don’t have that level of charisma. Dakota Johnson sleepwalks through her role as Maggie, and Tracee Ross Ellis tries, and fails, to breathe life into their scenes.
The one, uh, high note among the cast members is Kelvin Harrison, Jr. He once again proves that he’s the best actor of his generation. If he isn’t lip syncing his musical numbers, he’s also a formidable musician. Harrison bowled audiences over in films like It Comes at Night, Waves and Luce. In The High Note, he takes on a true leading man role and dominates every moment he’s on screen.
I’m probably being too hard on a light-hearted piece of pop entertainment. Plenty of viewers will find The High Note to be an acceptable way to pass their time. It’s a lot like eating cotton candy at a carnival. It’s light and airy, but has very little substance after you’ve consumed it.The High Note hits premium VOD outlets on Friday, May 29th.