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High Note (Combo Pack), The

Universal // PG-13 // August 11, 2020
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 4, 2020 | E-mail the Author

Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), one of the music industry's biggest stars, is struggling with her next move. Still smarting from the mixed critical and commercial response the last time she released a new record, she's been maintaining her popularity through touring and a greatest hits album. On the advice of her manager Jack (Ice Cube), she's putting out a live greatest hits album, and considering a Vegas residency, but she's (rightfully) concerned that her fans will think her career is entering a twilight phase. One person in Grace's corner: her assistant Maggie (Dakota Johnson), who has worked for Grace for three years. Maggie not only believes that Grace should move forward with a new album, but she's spent her free time in the studio secretly producing her own version of Grace's live album, with dreams of turning producing into a career. The thought of openly asking Grace if she can produce her albums frightens Maggie, and Jack has made his desire for the residency clear, but a chance encounter with an incredible young talent named David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) sets a chain of events in motion that will force Maggie to take some risks.

Many who have criticized The High Note have called it familiar or predictable, which is objectively true. The film follows a pretty standard dramatic template even before considering the talent/assistant relationship at the core of the movie, which itself is reasonably well-worn territory. Hell, that dynamic essentially mirrors director Nisha Ganatra's previous film, the Mindy Kaling/Emma Thompson comedy Late Night. Yet, even though the beats are predictable, The High Note is armed with a well-written script by Flora Greeson (which has an ear for specificity in its characters), slick execution by Ganatra, and features a fantastic cast led by Ross, Johnson, and Harrison -- more than enough to make this one of the year's best crowd-pleasers (even in a release schedule seriously slimmed by the pandemic).

Johnson is the lead of the film, but Ross -- herself the daughter of Diana Ross -- is unquestionably the star. Greeson wisely avoids making Grace a diva: she's demanding, accustomed to a high-class lifestyle, and occasionally mean, but she is not the kind of "boss from Hell" or even a formerly earnest person who has become jaded by the industry. Aside from half of a rant in a bathroom that outlines her political struggle a little too directly, Grace feels like a relatively normal person (albeit a rich one who sometimes acts a little gauche; the film really doesn't spend much time on class outside of Maggie's beat up old car), and the script does a good job of outlining her attempts to try and figure out what she wants in light of the various demands being placed upon her by other people. Ross is magnetic throughout, whether she's being funny or serious, and it is easy to admire Grace in the same way that Maggie admires her.

Of course, none of this is to say that Johnson isn't great as well, just that Ross's star power is brighter. In scenes between Maggie and David, both actors shine with wonderful understated chemistry, bonding over their shared love of music, forming a loose rapport that doesn't feel like non-stop ad-libbing (a defining characteristic of even good modern comedies). Several of the film's best scenes are brought to life through the energy they create whenever they're on screen together, including a moment where Maggie uses common ground to try and ease David's nerves in the recording studio, and a mirror-image scene later where Maggie is on the verge of tears and David helps her center herself in the moment. It's also great, of course, that Harrison's singing voice is as good as the script calls for, and his performances of songs, both classic and written for the movie, are electrifying.

In the home stretch, the plotting gets a little sloppy, with Maggie lying to David for unexplained reasons (she's already told David a bigger and more relevant lie, and the additional lie feels unnecessary), and Greeson throwing in a development that feels overly cutesy. Yet, once again, she and Ganatra are patient, with the pre-meditated turmoil resolving itself fairly naturally, and Ross scoring big yet again with a quiet, reflective scene that gives the movie's left turn enough weight to justify its goofiness (although, it feels like a huge missed opportunity that the movie lacks a scene where Grace hears Maggie's work for the first time, especially in this context). It's also always nice to see Bill Pullman show up, no matter how briefly. The High Note is familiar, and flawed, and yet it builds up enough goodwill that it's still a winner. Like many good pop songs, it might be familiar and it might not be deep, but if it's performed with enough conviction, it can still raise your spirits.

The Blu-ray
The High Note arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Universal, armed with a so-so key art image of Johnson, Ross, Cube, and Harrison framed within a gold record (the framing is so tight it's barely evident it's a record), laid over a lighter gold backdrop with little flecks in it (either sparks or bubbles in champagne), with palm trees extended up into the image at the bottom. When studios create images for store ads and now digital storefronts, they often create simplified "sales art" that emphasizes the title more clearly and removes stuff like credits and pull quotes. In the case of The High Note (a film that premiered digitally due to the pandemic), it feels like there's less of a difference between the "full" art and the sales art. In any case, the artwork appears on both the foil, embossed slipcover and the sleeve, and there is a Movies Anywhere digital copy code included inside the two-disc Viva Elite case holding the Blu-ray and DVD copy. On the back of the digital copy sheet, there is also a code to redeem on Universal's points site toward a free digital movie.

The Video and Audio
Unsurprisingly, The High Note is a chart-topper in the A/V department. The High Note has some fairly stylish cinematography by Jason McCormick, going from brightly-lit LA landscapes to the dark inside of tiny clubs, and each new location and look is vividly captured by the disc's 2.39:1 1080p AVC presentation. Color is a real knockout throughout, with Grace's outfits and lavish lifestyle providing plenty of opportunities for a wide, gorgeous palette, and fine detail is outstanding throughout. Of course, the real star here is the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track, which doesn't just take off during the songs (although they of course sound absolutely fantastic, bringing the viewer right into the richness of the music), but provides a nice, immersive backdrop even just using the ambience of Los Angeles, outdoors (remember the outdoors?). A Dolby Digital 2.0 Descriptive Video Service track is also included along with English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing, and French and Spanish subtitles.

The Extras
The High Note's bonus features are less like an album and more like a single. The most substantial of them is a collection of deleted/extended/alternate scenes (approximately 25:38 total), but the vast majority of the material is fine, wisely cut from the finished film. The most interesting scene is an additional appearance by Eddie Izzard (conceptually sound, but probably best left out in execution). I also might've preserved part of the scene introducing Katie, Maggie's rommate, which explicitly underlines Maggie's fear of telling Grace directly about her dreams.

Two featurettes are next. The first: "The Dream Team: Inside the Creation of The High Note" (5:16), which is a really quick run through the production, focusing on the efforts to make Grace Davis seem like a real artist, from the songwriting to the wardrobe to the album designs, and the film's female-focused message. The other, "Making a Legend: The Grace Davis Story (4:04), is a featurette that repurposes some of the same EPK footage and clips from the movie to create a documentary about Ross' character as if she were real. Corny but harmless -- there was an era when Universal produced supplements like this all the time, and they were much worse than this.

The disc wraps up with a music video (3:08) for "Like I Do." No theatrical trailer for The High Note is included. Note that this uses Universal's (and Sony's) new menu design format showing off the extras on the main menu at all times on the right-hand side of the screen, and there is a convenient "Play All" option not just for the additional footage, but for the entire supplemental package.

It might not break new ground, but The High Note is incredibly winning, a straightforward burst of funny, heartfelt, crowd-pleasing energy, led by a great cast and some knockout musical performances. The supplemental package leaves quite a bit to be desired (a commentary with Ganatra, Greeson, and Ross would've been a slam dunk), but the movie is highly recommended.

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