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Review: 'The High Note' is an all too-familiar tune

I’m trying to think of a feature film about the recording/entertainment industry that looked like it was written by someone on the inside.

And I’m coming up short.

I know there are some pretty fine documentaries on the subject: the Tom Petty documentary Runnin’ Down a Dream (2007) directed by Peter Bogdanovich, History of the Eagles (2013) and Amy Winehouse: Back to Black (2018) come to mind.

All took you inside the real-life, no-holds-barred world of rock star celebrity and fame.

They peeled back the curtain and handed you a virtual backstage pass.

Feature films on the subject always seem to lack that perspective or level of insight.

What we often get instead, is someone’s idea of what that world must be like, or what a celebrity wants you to think it was like.

A great example is Rocketman, Elton John’s self-serving, self-produced biopic, dedicated to himself and his struggle to achieve recognition, fortune and fame. I guess you can tell, I wasn’t a fan.

But now comes The High Note, the latest retelling of a very familiar show business tale.

There’s the superstar schizoid diva (Tracee Ellis Ross), her calculating, money-driven manager (Ice Cube) and the naïve, struggling, long-suffering assistant with her own dreams of stardom, looking for an opportunity to break into the business (Dakota Johnson).

The dynamics of the story seem borrowed from The Devil Wears Prada (2006) in which Anne Hathaway was the frazzled assistant and Meryl Streep was the monstrous boss.

These seem to be becoming stock characters and stock relationships in contemporary movies involving women.

Another borrowed element is ironically from Dakota Johnson’s previous Fifty Shades of Grey movies.

What I’m referring to is the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous angle, giving us a rare glimpse into the world of the privileged.

The High Note is a movie targeting women and pandering to those who want to indulge in the guilty vicarious pleasures of designer clothing and luxurious surroundings.

The plot is largely predictable.

Sight unseen, you know that the struggling underling will eventually suffer her way through all the obstacles (both professional and emotional) to success.

Yes, there is a major revelation along the way, but if you’re paying attention chances are you will have figured it out long before the final reel.

The movie apparently is hoping that you will not paying attention to puzzling details like how an underpaid personal assistant driving a “beater” of a car while frugally sharing modest expenses with a roommate can somehow afford the studio costs and expenses of producing an album project for her new boyfriend.

We can only conclude that none of this is to be taken too seriously.

What we have left is a feature length movie soap opera that’s banking on style over substance.

To its credit, the L.A. lifestyle images are handsomely shot and there are some musical numbers that work well.

Along those lines, I’m reminded of Bradley Cooper’s recent remake of A Star is Born which applied that very formula.

If you’re looking for a behind-the-scenes drama with realism and punch, The High Note probably isn’t it.

At best, it’s light, escapist entertainment if you’re a fan of Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross or TV soap operas.

It might provide some diversion during the coronavirus pandemic the way the Astaire-Rogers movies temporarily took people’s minds off the Great Depression back in the Thirties.

Incidentally, one final note. Behind-the-scenes stories don’t necessarily have to be written by actual insiders in order to be interesting or entertaining.

I’m reminded of the R-rated, hard-hitting, foul mouthed, gloves-off, landmark screenplay for the Paul Newman hockey movie Slap Shot (1977) written by Nancy Dowd.

While she never played hockey or stepped into a locker room, she did spend four months doing research. Lesson learned. Check it out sometime.


The High Note will be available At Home On Demand starting May 29.

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