‘High Fidelity’ is still one of the best movies about music ever made
Diehard record collector and inthemix’s resident music nerd JIM POE reflects on a film that just gets better with age.
High Fidelity is probably the best film ever made about being a music fan and record collector. Though it’s billed as a comedy, it’s a pretty dark and harrowing to watch for those of us who recognise ourselves in the obsessive jerks onscreen. It should come with a trigger warning.
If you’ve ever blown a week’s pay on records; if you’ve ever gone through a breakup because your floundering music career made you impossible to be with; if you lay awake at night wondering whether your exhaustive knowledge of garage rock or Jamaican dub actually makes you a music professional or just someone who never grew up; if you’ve ever convinced yourself a carefully planned mixtape will change someone’s mind about you — make sure you’re in a good place before you press play on this film.
“For a mainstream film that’s ostensibly a comedy, High Fidelity is fearless in its cynicism and miserablism.”
Much in the way This Is Spinal Tap comes across like a found-footage horror flick if you’ve ever been on a music tour, High Fidelity is way too real.
Vividly recreating the lonely spectacle of life inside a dusty, disorganised record store or between huge stacks of vinyl in a cluttered, darkened apartment, the film’s central thesis
is that music nerds aren’t actually cool at all, but selfish, pathetic losers. “Mostly young men, who spend all their time looking for deleted Smiths singles,” our protagonist says with disgust at the start. “I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t, well, kinda one of them.”
But you don’t have to be a music tragic to relate; High Fidelity is terrific viewing full stop for its wicked humour and especially its romance — or more accurately its deconstruction of romance.
John Cusack plays Rob Gordon, owner of ‘Championship Vinyl’, a fictional but hilariously spot-on record store on an out-of-the-way, yet-to-be gentrified side street in downtown Chicago.
Rob is going through a tough breakup with his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle), and instead of being a grown-up about it, which would be unrealistic, he does what most of us would do: he drinks, lashes out and plunges into a bitter, self-serving reverie of his worst breakups, compulsively catalogued in a top five list as if they were albums. Rob, whose running narration breaks the fourth wall, is perfectly frank with us that the record store is not so much a business enterprise as a way to avert adulthood.
“No one is better than Cusack at portraying a depressed introvert: constantly cringing and looking disgusted with himself.”
Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel was set in London; director Stephen Frears and star and co- writer Cusack brilliantly adapted the 2000 film version to the Chicago setting. If you’ve read the book and think the shift to an American perspective means it will be less cutting and more sentimental, think again. For a mainstream film that’s ostensibly a comedy, High Fidelity is fearless in its cynicism and miserablism, and exceeds the novel in emotional impact, especially due to the incomparable Cusack’s career-best performance.
The first shot of the film sets the tone, with Cusack sitting hunched in the dark, headphones on, scowling, looking like he wants to die. “What came first, the music or the misery?” he asks. No one is better than him at portraying a depressed introvert: constantly cringing and looking disgusted with himself, talking with no eye contact, standing in the rain dejectedly.
Mind you it’s a very funny movie. Several bits will make you do that thing where you’re laughing until you’re kind of sick, especially the scenes set in the store, as Rob and his hopelessly slack employees Dick and Barry endlessly make top five lists of their favourite tunes, mistreat the customers and barely conceal their contempt for each other.
Jack Black is at his best as the manic Barry — you get the feeling he’s not even acting as he bounces off the walls and furiously upsells classics by Bob Dylan and the Jesus and Mary Chain to the lost souls who haunt the store.
It’s a good-looking film too; the cinematography is quietly beautiful, a visual love letter to Chicago; the rhythmic editing that mixes Rob’s rambling monologues with ongoing flashbacks is brisk and clever; and it’s rich with real-life detail about the music business.
It goes without saying the T-shirts, stickers and posters that pop up in nearly every shot (Love & Rockets, Urge Overkill, Nightmares on Wax) are absolutely spot on, as are the
records played in the store (Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, De La Soul).
The music is excellent throughout, especially for the way it mashes up classic rock, punk and indie with soul classics by the likes of Barry White and Stevie Wonder. The Cosby Show’s Lisa Bonet, a real-life musician, is great as a soul singer who slays a Peter Frampton cover; it’ll make you wonder why she never became a bigger star. Dance music fans will note that since it was released in the year 2000 we get to hear lots of big beat (Rob’s favoured sound when he DJs) along with jungle and folktronica like the Beta Band.
“The cinematography is quietly beautiful, a visual love letter to Chicago.”
The music and snarky comedy are brilliantly balanced with the depressing bits about ageing, failed relationships and the loneliness of obsession. For a film about a man-child, its view of love is surprisingly mature, as the screenplay subtly dismantles the idea of romance.
A running theme is that passion is a fleeting if not destructive thing, and couples should stick together mainly for practical reasons like companionship and comfort. What kind of Hollywood comedy upholds such romantic realism? But it also hints at the happiness and joy that might be found in that mundane sort of love, and that’s refreshing and heartening despite or because of the realness.
It’s also admirable for the way it confronts Rob’s casual sexism and his tendency to be abusive. In general it rather ruthlessly picks apart the egos of the men who dominate the world of music geeks. Somehow, despite his best efforts to prevent it, Rob does learn and grow, and he also manages to be self-reflective and thoughtful and even caring within his misery.
That redemption blooming amidst the wasteland of geekdom is what makes High Fidelity great.
Jim Poe is a writer, DJ, and editor based in Sydney. He tweets from @fivegrand1.