Thursday, November 11, 2010

High Fidelity

Have you ever spent hours organizing your record collection in chronological order and by genre? Have you ever had heated debates with your friends about the merits of a band who lost one of its founding members? Or argued about your top five favorite B-sides? If so, chances are you will love High Fidelity (2000), a film for and about characters obsessed with their favorite bands and music. What Free Enterprise (1999) did for film geeks; High Fidelity does for music geeks. Based on the British novel of the same name by Nick Hornby, it is a film made by and for the kind of people who collect vintage vinyl and read musician and band biographies in their spare time yet is still accessible to people who like smart, witty romantic comedies.

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is an obsessed music junkie who owns a record store called Championship Vinyl. He has just broken up with Laura (Iben Hjejle), a long-time girlfriend and the latest in a countless string of failed relationships. Rob addresses the audience directly throughout the film (just like Woody Allen did in his 1977 film, Annie Hall) about this latest break-up and how his top five break-ups of all-time inform his most recent one. It’s a great way for Rob to try and come to terms with his shortcomings and the reasons why his past relationships did not work out. He is talking directly to us and in doing so we relate to him and his dilemma a lot easier. And so, he goes on a quest to find out why, as he puts it, “is doomed to be left, doomed to be rejected,” by revisiting his worst break-ups. The purpose of this trip down memory lane is an attempt to understand his most recent falling out with Laura.

Along the way we meet a colorful assortment of characters, from his past girlfriends (that includes the diverse likes of Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones) to his co-workers at Championship Vinyl (Jack Black and Todd Louiso). They really flesh out the film to such a degree that I felt like I was seeing aspects of my friends and myself in these characters. Being a self-confessed obsessive type when it comes to film and music, I could easily relate to these people and their problems. And that’s why High Fidelity works so well for me. The extremely funny and wryly observant script by D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and John Cusack (the same team behind the excellent Grosse Pointe Blank) not only zeroes in on what it is to love something so passionately but why other things (like relationships) often take a backseat as a result. A girlfriend might not always be there for you, but your favorite album or film will. A song will never judge you or walk out on you and there is a kind of comfort in that.

The screenplay also makes some fantastic observations on how men view love and relationships. Throughout the film Cusack’s character delivers several monologues to us about his thoughts on past love affairs, one of my favorite being the top five things he liked about Laura. It’s a touching, hopelessly romantic speech that reminded me a lot of Woody Allen’s list of things to live for in Manhattan (1979). Usually, this technique almost never works (see Kuffs) because it often comes across as being too cute and self-aware for its own good but in High Fidelity it works because Cusack uses it as a kind of confessional as Rob sorts out his feelings for Laura and sorts through past relationships and how they led him to her.

The screenplay works so well because not only is it well written but it is brought to life by a solid ensemble cast. The role of Rob Gordon is clearly tailor-made for John Cusack. Rob contains all the trademarks of the kinds of characters the actor is known for: the cynical, self-deprecating humor, the love of 1980s music, and the inability to commit to the woman of his dreams. Even though High Fidelity is not directed by Cusack, like Grosse Pointe Blank, it is clearly his film, right down to the casting of friends in front of and behind the camera (i.e. actors Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, his sister Joan, and screenwriters, D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink). Along with Say Anything (1989), this is Cusack’s finest performance. I like that he isn’t afraid to play Rob as a hurtful jerk afraid of commitment despite being surrounded by strong women, like his mother who chastises him for breaking up Laura, and his sister Liz (Joan Cusack) who is supportive at first until she finds out why he and Laura really broke up. Rob had an affair with someone else while Laura was pregnant and as a result she got an abortion. This horrible act runs the risk of alienating Rob from the audience but Cusack’s natural charisma keeps us hanging in there to see if Rob can redeem himself.

All of the scenes that take place in the record store are some of the most entertaining and funniest moments in the film, from Rob listing off his top five side one, track ones, to Barry schooling an Echo and the Bunnymen fan on The Jesus and Mary Chain, to Rob fantasizing about beating the shit out of Laura’s new boyfriend Ian (Tim Robbins) when he shows up one day to clear the air. These scenes showcase the excellent comic timing of Cusack and his co-stars, Jack Black and Todd Louiso. The interplay between their characters instantly conveys that they’ve known each other for years by the way they banter and bicker.

Louiso’s Dick is a shy, introverted guy that you can imagine listening to Belle and Sebastian religiously, while Black’s Barry is a rude, annoying blowhard who says everything you wish you could actually say in public. It’s a flashy, scene-stealing role that Black does to perfection, whether it is discussing the merits of Evil Dead II’s soundtrack with Rob or doing a spot-on cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” for the launch of Rob’s record label. And yet, Barry isn’t overused and only appears at the right moments and for maximum comic effect. His sparing usage in High Fidelity made me want to see more of him, which is why he works so well. However, Louiso, with his quiet, bashful take on Dick, is the film’s secret weapon. The scene where he tells a customer (Sara Gilbert) about Green Day’s two primary influences which is a nice example of the understatement he brings to the role.

The casting of Danish actress Iben Hjejle is an atypical choice but one that works because she brings an emotional strength and an intelligence to a character that is largely absent from a lot of female romantic leads. She’s not traditionally beautiful, like Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays one of Rob’s ex-girlfriends, Charlie Nicholson. Sure, Charlie is drop-dead gorgeous but her personality is so off-putting that any kind of deep, meaningful relationship would be impossible. Laura is so much more than that. While Rob refuses to change and to think about the future, Laura is more adaptable, changing jobs to one that she actually enjoys doing even if it means she can’t have her hair dyed some exotic color. Laura is easily Rob’s intellectual equal, if not smarter, and the voice of reason as well as having no problem calling him on his shit.

Nick Hornby’s book was optioned by Disney’s Touchstone division in 1995 where it went into development for the next three years. Disney boss Joe Roth had a conversation with recording executive Kathy Nelson who recommended John Cusack (whom she had worked with on Grosse Pointe Blank) and his screenwriting and producing partners D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink adapt the book. They wrote a treatment that was immediately green-lit by Roth. In adapting the book into a screenplay, Cusack found that the greatest challenge was pulling off Rob’s frequent breaking of the fourth wall and talking directly to the audience. They did this to convey Rob’s inner confessional thoughts and were influenced by a similar technique in Alfie (1966). However, Cusack initially rejected this approach because he thought, “there’d just be too much of me.” Once director Stephen Frears came on board, he suggested utilizing this approach and Cusack and his writing partners decided to go for it.

The writers decided to change the book’s setting from London to Chicago because they were more familiar with the city and it also had a “great alternative music scene,” said Pink. Not to mention, both he and Cusack were from the city. I like how they shot so much of the film on location, making the city like another character and even including visual references to local record labels like Touch & Go and Wax Trax! Another challenge they faced was figuring out which songs would go where in High Fidelity because Rob, Dick and Barry “are such musical snobs.” Cusack, DeVincentis and Pink listened to 2,000 songs and picked a staggering 70 cues for the film. DeVincentis was the record-collection obsessive among the writers with 1,000 vinyl records in his collection and thousands of CDs and cassettes. They also thought of the idea to have Rob have a conversation with Bruce Springsteen in his head, never thinking they’d actually get him to be in the film but that putting him in the script would get the studio excited about it. They were inspired by a reference in Hornby’s book where the narrator wishes he could handle his past girlfriends as well as Springsteen does in the song, “Bobby Jean” on Born in the USA. Cusack knew the Boss socially, called the musician and pitched the idea. Springsteen asked for a copy of the script and after reading it, agreed to do the film.

Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, "Watching High Fidelity, I had the feeling I could walk out of the theater and meet the same people on the street — and want to, which is an even higher compliment.” The Washington Post’s Desson Howe praised Jack Black as "a bundle of verbally ferocious energy. Frankly, whenever he's in the scene, he shoplifts this movie from Cusack.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden praised Cusack's performance, writing that he was "a master at projecting easygoing camaraderie, he navigates the transitions with such an astonishing naturalness and fluency that you're almost unaware of them." Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B-" rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, "In High Fidelity, Rob's music fixation is a signpost of his arrested adolescence; he needs to get past records to find true love. If the movie had had a richer romantic spirit, he might have embraced both in one swooning gesture." Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, "It hits all the laugh bases, from grins to guffaws. Cusack and his Chicago friends — D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink — have rewritten Scott Rosenberg's script to catch Hornby's spirit without losing the sick comic twists they gave 1997's Grosse Pointe Blank." However, the USA Today was not crazy about the film: "Let's be kind and just say High Fidelity ... doesn't quite belong beside Grosse Pointe Blank and The Sure Thing in Cusack's greatest hits collection. It's not that he isn't good. More like miscast." Nick Hornby was impressed by how faithful the film was to his book: “At times it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book.”

High Fidelity is now a historical document thanks to the rise of iTunes and the subsequent demise of brick and mortar record stores. The film is a tribute to these places where one could spend hours sifting through bins of vinyl records and used CDs, looking for that forgotten gem or a rare deal on something you were looking for. I’m not talking about places like Tower Records or Virgin Megastore but those cool, local stores that catered to obsessive collectors. This film is a love letter and a eulogy to these stores. It’s scary to think that it’s only been ten years since High Fidelity came out and indie record stores are almost an extinct breed, except for the ones hanging on in big cities. Even though the world and the characters in High Fidelity are unashamedly of a rarified type: the obsessive music geek or elitist, which some people may have trouble relating to, the film’s conclusion suggests that there is much more to life than one’s all-consuming passion for these things. It also helps to be passionate about someone. And that message is delivered in a refreshingly honest and cliché-free fashion as it provides what is ultimately the humanist core of High Fidelity.

For more on the film, check Chronological Snobbery's excellent retrospective look, here.


SOURCES

Beale, Lewis. "Staying Faithful to High Fidelity." Daily News. April 2, 2000.

Malanowski, Jamie. "Keeping Faith with High Fidelity." The New York Times. April 2, 2000.

Portman, Jamie. "Quirky John Cusack Embraces the Eccentric – Again." Ottawa Citizen. March 27, 2000.

Watson-Smyth, Kate. "A case of low fidelity as Hornby's novel translates awkwardly to film." The Independent. April 1, 2000.

Wloszczyna, Susan. "Boss Cameo a Musical Coup." USA Today. March 31, 2000.

Wloszczyna, Susan. "Cusack, in Tune with His Movies." USA Today. March 31, 2000.

McGuire, Judy. "Romance, Movie Style – Love on Location – High Fidelity." Time. February 28, 2009.


Husband, Stuart. "Tracks of My Frears." The Guardian. April 21, 2000.

13 comments:

  1. Excellent review! I'd liked your point at the end in regards to music/technology. Though not as outdated as Free Enteprise (I've got all five Planet of the Apes on laserdisc. . .letterboxed!), High Fidelity does feel like this nice little time capsule you open up and go 'wow' while feeling nostalgia.

    Having read the book and seen the movie, the location is 'timeless' if that makes sense. I think it was perfect in this film and that comes down to directing/acting/production. A book like Fever Pitch, which is so specific to time and place like High Fidelity WAS, also written originally by Nick Hornby, was BUTCHERED by hack directing and acting and Americanized to be palatable. Something tells me a better director, like Frears, can make something work in any setting as long as the feeling is there despite the original intention.

    I concur this was Cusack's best performance AND it was, quite literally, the mainstream coming out party for Black. Throughout the whole movie you think Black is a hack singer and only fooling himself into thinking he's good. By movie's end you just sit back and go 'HOLY SHIT HE'S FUNNY. . .AND GOOD'.

    I included this film on my list (oddly enough considering this film is full of lists) on my 'Five Deserving Films That Didn't Get One Oscar Nomination'.

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  2. that's a great look back at this movie. I remember liking it a good deal, though some of it probably hasn't aged as well. John Cusack was definitely a big crush back in the day. I LOVED The Grifters.

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  3. Can I be a cranky crank and say I really dislike this film? Shorn of its English roots, who really do have a better sense of what's hip than most Yanks, I found it endlessly smug, particularly Jack Black.

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  4. Fantastic review J.D. I absolutely love this film - it's probably one of my favorites from the decade - and I really like the way you characterize it as simultaneously a love letter/eulogy to those groovy hole-in-the-wall record stores that so many of us 25+ probably have fond remembrances of, and that are all but extinct these days. It definitely adds an additional layer of poignancy when watching these days, much in the same way something like Gondry's BE KIND REWIND is bound to resonate with those who grew up frequenting their local video rental stores.

    I see Christian uses the word "smug" as a negative above, but I actually in a way find that quality to be one of the film's strengths; have you ever been in a music store run by angst-ridden twenty-thirtysomething elitists? Smugness is often a part of the proceedings, but of course it's sometimes (as the movie understands and acknowledges) merely a facade. I think there's a certain authenticity in the way the characters are presented, and because of that we're able to get some brutally honest moments that you generally don't see in a movie like this.

    Above all I just think there's a ton of genuine heart and wit in the film, and I'm generally of the mind that it's the best thing done by pretty much everyone involved (and I'm a big Cusack/Frears fan.)

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  5. Will:

    Heh, good reference on FREE ENTERPRISE - the laserdisc references do date the film but in kind of a cool way.

    But you're right about HIGH FIDELITY conveying that nostalgia vibe and being a time capsule of sorts. I have the book but have yet to read it... it's on the pile of ones to get to altho, I'm kind of dreading as I'm going to invariably picture the actors from the film.

    I like what you said about Black's character. And it's true, you're thinking through the film that Barry is just some blowhard know-it-all who can't back up what he says with actual talent and then surprises everyone at the end!

    Thanks for the great comments!


    Myra:

    Thanks! I am also a big fan of THE GRIFTERS which is generally considered Cusack's first "mature" film - whatever that means. Frears seems to know how to bring the best out of him.


    christian:

    A dissenting opinion is always welcome! I can certainly understand where you're coming from and I think that the deal with this film is that it features a lot of smug characters but I don't think the film is smug itself... if that makes any sense. The film goes great lengths to celebrate and gently make fun of these elitist music geeks.


    Drew:

    Thank you for the kind words. Good to see another fan of this film. And good call on the parallels to Gondry's film. You're right! That film does the same thing 'cept for video stores. I also miss the indie video stores where you could go in and chat it up with some film geek and peruse the aisles for that lost gem.

    I also agree with you about "brutally honest" moments sprinkled throughout the film. Rob isn't let off the hook a lot of the times and is shown to be far from perfect but at least he is trying to get better at his relationships with women. I couldn't agree more about the "heart and wit" of this film. That's exactly right!

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  6. Really late to the concert on this one JD. Been pretty sick and fairly unmotivated.

    Feeling better. Great article. I lived in these places my friend all my life. I'm sad to see them gone. I mean it. I lived in them. I could thumb through vinyl and make mix tapes with exclusive b-sides until the cows came home.

    Not to mention nothing says I love you like a mix tape. HA! I used to make those and think they were the greatest gifts in the world.

    Anyway, you know I love music and I loved some of your reflections on the film especially your point about it being a historical document. Well said. Excellent.

    Best to you my friend- SFF

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  7. The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I hope you're feeling better, my friend! I can certainly empathize. When you're feeling that bad all you want to do is sit around and feel miserable.

    I had a feeling you were also a fan of/had fond memories of the ol' brick and mortar record stores. And yes, mixed tapes! I used to love making them, putting samples from TV and movies in between songs... As always, thanks for stopping by and leaving some fantastic comments.

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  8. Great review JD. Hard to believe this film is already being thought of as a "time capsule" of some distant past. I really, really related to Cusack's character in "High Fidelity" like I haven't in about 99.99% of other characters in other films: roughly the same age, same musical tastes, same luck in relationships with women, same affinity to list and make mixed tapes etc. etc. etc. Ironically, John Cusack's father was a classmate of my father's at Holy Cross and Joan C married a claasmate of mine at HC as well....so in many ways I felt as if I really knew these characters.

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  9. J.D My friend.

    As a matter of fact, I was laying in bed last night thinking, "Man, actually, no joke, I have piles of vinyl in the basement."

    I have so much I don't know what to do with it at this point.

    I don't have a turn table set up anymore. At one time J.D. I burned loads of b-sides from those 12" records to CD-R. I still have many of those CD-Rs in my cabinets with rare music [some of it not as rare any more with the advent of remaster collections and reissues with bonus track] and exclsuive b-sides.

    Anyway, thought you might too. Thanks for the well wishes. Feeling better and getting stronger again.

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  10. indianhoop:

    I know what you mean! Watching this film makes me feel old and it's sad that record stores are virtually extinct! And I know what you mean about relating to these characters... I think that's what keeps me coming back to this film, seeing a lot of myself or people I know in these characters. Same with FREE ENTERPRISE which I never tire of.

    Thanks for the kind words!


    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I have some vinyl but no where the near collection my dad has who is a big music collector which reminds me that one of these days I should get a record player. It doesn't surprise me that you are also a big vinyl record collector. Judging from your love of music I can see it and I still love the sound a vinyl record makes - the pops and other little sounds have a warmth to them that you just don't get on CD.

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  11. Huge fan of this movie, I remember the first time I saw it, immediately went out to buy the dvd.

    I guess I identified with John Cusacks character immediately, I mean, the collecting stuff, the obsessiveness with records, I connected with it and my obsession with movies.

    Also, I was a big fan of giving girls mix tapes! I did it all the time!

    The big revelation with this movie for me was of course Jack Blacks performance, it blew me away and right then and there I knew the guy was gonna hit it big at some point, which he did.

    Also, the movie made me laugh out loud on so many occassions! Like that scene where Joan Cusack comes into the store and screams at JOHN: "You fucking asshole!" ha ha!
    Or that scene where Cusack imagines hes killing that Ian guy with the air conditioner. Funny stuff.

    Remains a truly great film in my book.

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  12. The Film Connoisseur:

    Yeah, I remember seeing this in the theater and then getting it on DVD as soon as it came out.

    Wasn't Black so good in this film? A sign of things to come. I had seen him previously in small parts in Tim Robbins films but nothing prepared me for the full-on assault of his character in this film! He's had kind of an uneven career but is still capable of delivering the goods with the right material (SCHOOL OF ROCK).

    Hah. I like your examples of some funny moments in the film. One of my faves is when Black's character first shows up, takes out Dick's mixed tape and just tosses it away so that he can put his tape on. Great intro to his character.

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  13. How's about when he's like: "A Cosby Sweat-ah!" I loved that scene where Black is going to sing, and everyone thinks he is going to suck, and suddenly he comes and surprises everyone.

    And the scene where they go on and on about Evil Dead II, I was like, wow, they are giving props to Evil Dead II...which I thought was fantastic.

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