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'The High Note' Review: Dakota Johnson's flat performance helps drown the soullessly rehashed drama

This music tale won't make you mad or sad, but it may disappoint you if the hopes are for anything more than a commercially overwrought story.
Credit: Focus Features

ST. LOUIS — Have you ever watched a movie that was overly familiar, following lock and step with countless other movies, yet it didn't make you mad about spending time with it in the end? Welcome to "The High Note," a movie that dares to go nowhere yet kills time sufficiently.

Margaret (Dakota Johnson) is the assistant to the famous yet aging and highly needy musician, Grace Jones (Tracee Ellis Ross), but she dreams of being more. How much more? A producer. But Margaret wants to produce meaningful music, including Jones' comeback album. She listens to the classics like Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, getting lost amid the sell-out chaos of the modern world of music business.

Her fiercest competition may be Jones' agent, Jack Robertson (Ice Cube, slightly amusing), who just wants his oldest client to take a residency in Las Vegas and ease his mind while bringing money to his pockets. Margaret has other plans, including discovering an up and coming talent in David (Kelvin Harrison Jr.).

Do you get the picture yet? It's not hard to move the pieces into the proper ending order. "The High Note," directed by Nisha Ganatra, looks flashy and doesn't waste any time in swallowing you up in its world of tours, planes, late night fast food drive-by orders, and soulless chaos in a studio. From the costume design of Ross' Jones to the production design of Margaret's quaint little Los Angeles apartment with a beautiful view, you get the drift right away that this is show business.

Flora Greeson's screenplay offers no surprises or interesting pivots, but it does have a couple nice moments. One rant by Ross speaks to the unfortunate plight of aging creative artists of color, but it's forgotten by the time we get to the climatic fight between star and protege, or maybe that was the first fight between new lovers. I'm not sure. It's all a bit too familiar to recall exactly where I lost interest.

You have seen all of this before, most notably in Ganatra's last film, which was 2019's "Late Night." There, Emma Thompson's aging yet still well-known TV host needed a jump from the young and ambitious Mindy Kaling. The old and new facing off, analog players trying to survive in a digital world. That film had a flashy soundtrack and look but it also didn't have a soul or purpose.

That's the problem here. "The High Note" doesn't stand out, coming off more like a label commitment piece than a true original work of art. It hits all the projected plot points to a tee, wrapping with a final shot that mirrors the first. It's too neat and shiny to be real.

Do you feel for Jones' artist struggling to stay relevant and rich? A little.

Do you feel for Margaret's wide-eyed and big-minded music lover? A little less.

The performances as a whole lack punch, even if some get a few good moments. Along with that great rant, Ross does imbue Grace with a raw collection of sass and honesty. You see, in small moments and shades of dialogue, a voice trying to stick around in the authentic playground. But it's all superficial in the end.

And then there's Johnson. While she was very good in "The Peanut Butter Falcon," she is completely flat here. She has two expressions, and they both get worn out by the midway point. She is like Kristen Stewart before she broke out of the "Twilight" lockdown, twitching and fumbling to a performance instead of creating something. There's nothing there worth remembering.

Harrison Jr. burned through the screen in "Waves" and "Luce," but gets a lackluster loverboy supporting role that isn't better served at all by a late twist. Like Bill Pullman, who shows up late in a thanklessly short role, he's wasted here.

The onus falls on Johnson making magic with her role and locking horns with Ross, but she's not up to the task. Maybe Emma Stone could have done something with it. Maybe not.

"The High Note" won't make you mad or sad, but it may disappoint you if the hopes are for anything more than a commercially overwrought story.

I'd watch "The Devil Wears Prada" instead. It got there first and did it a lot better.

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