The High Note review – aggressively watchable rom-com

Dakota Johnson plays PA to Tracee Ellis Ross' superstar in a completely formulaic but entertaining foray into the LA music industry

For better or worse, director Nisha Ganatra has carved out a place as Hollywood’s go-to filmmaker for movies about plucky young women helping famous older women to overcome career stagnation. In Ganatra's last film, Late Night, Mindy Kaling sought to bring Emma Thompson’s ailing late night host back from the brink; now Dakota Johnson has been cast to do the same for Tracee Ellis Ross – only this time we’ve exchanged the world of TV for the West Coast music biz.

But where Late Night was a chore to sit through, The High Note manages to be almost aggressively watchable in spite of its familiar beats. Everything here is formulaic to the max, and there's barely a diversion in sight, but it's a more inherently charismatic film than Late Night, with a better consistency of tone. Also, some decent jokes.

Johnson plays Maggie Sherwood, a hardworking PA with aspirations of becoming a music producer. Her boss is the superstar Grace Davis (Ross), who – at the insistence of her manager (Ice Cube) – is considering a Vegas residency. Maggie argues that Davis is better than that and pushes her to create a new album instead. But then Maggie's attention is split when she meets a talented singer-songwriter (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and convinces him she's a big time producer.

Make no mistake: sun-kissed vistas, endless blue skies, and breezy trips to Whole Foods place us squarely in wish-fulfilment fantasy territory. It’s the sort of movie where our assumedly low-paid assistant somehow occupies a spacious apartment with stunning city views and her own rooftop terrace – an idyllic version of Los Angeles unafraid to push the fairytale vibes.

The film features a number of original songs, as performed by the cast, and though they're not quite “Shallow,” they're catchy enough – though for a movie set in the music industry the film does lack any real insight into the business itself. And whilst most of the characters here continually profess their deep love of music, the constant references to the great albums and artists always feels hollow and fake, as though defined by a quick Google search.

Yet as The High Note goes back and forth between its romance and its womance, it's hard not to be swept up by the pleasant, affable tone. That said, the film goes off the rails somewhat during the third act in a misguided attempt to connect its multiple story strands – not just unnecessary, but highly implausible (for some, this moment will prove one false note too many… and fair enough).

The film’s biggest strength is the pairing of Johnson and Ross. Johnson has a particularly understated acting style that helps to ground a film with its head in the clouds. Ross, meanwhile, is entirely believable as the diva-ish star who has achieved global fame and can’t figure out the next steps (it helps, perhaps, that her mother is Diana Ross). Their chemistry keeps you invested, even as the plot meanders.

The High Note cannot be called groundbreaking or even groundmoving, but clearly the driving force here was to create something in the comfort food style – a movie to simply switch on and switch off to. Like listening to a classic song on the radio, it's overly familiar, but you’re still happy to hear it.

The High Note is now available to rent on VOD platforms.

Where to watch online

More Reviews...

A White, White Day review – chilly Icelandic drama explores the futility of revenge

This Scandi thriller about a grieving grandfather from writer-director Hlynur Palmason is best when at its most grounded

The Booksellers review – a documentary to curl up with

D.W. Young's easygoing examination of New York's rare and antique book scene makes for interesting, if unremarkable, viewing

Lynn + Lucy review – British debut is stingingly insightful

Fyzal Boulifa's drama is a cut above most kitchen-sink debuts and features an outstanding turn from newcomer Roxanne Scrimshaw

Welcome to Chechnya review – vital and harrowing LGBTQ+ persecution doc

David France’s latest film presents the unfiltered, distressing realities of LGBTQ+ Russians fleeing the torturous Chechen regime


25 Essential Ennio Morricone Tracks

After his passing at the age of 91, we look back at some of the greatest ever scores from cinema's greatest ever maestro

Best Films to Stream This Week in the UK

What to stream and rent this week, including Lin-Manuel Miranda's acclaimed musical and the latest oddity from Werner Herzog...

In Five Films: Werner Herzog

With the arrival of Family Romance, LLC, the Japan-set curio from the Bavarian legend, we try to sum up his career in just five films

Netflix’s Homemade Short Films, Ranked From Worst to Best

Netflix's new lockdown anthology series collects shorts from filmmakers around the world, including Kristen Stewart and Paolo Sorrentino. But how do they compare?