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High Fidelity

Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: John Cusack, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Iben Hjejle, Todd Louiso, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins

(Universal; 2000)

Another Top 5 List

5. High Fidelity is an adaption of the 1995 book of the same name by Nick Hornby, which means one can view it and consider how literature can (and cannot) be adapted to film.


This will be on the minds of some viewers because Hornby’s book has officially (I hereby decree) achieved cult status. Actually, it has sold a lot of copies (well over a million and of course there is a new movie tie-in edition), but can be labeled a “cult” novel because many readers feel very close to it and tend to relate to others who also enjoy it. Fans of the novel will likely appreciate the faithful transfer of the novel’s wandering plot and hilarious tone to the screen.


The movie High Fidelity tells the so-far life story of mid-30s Rob Burton (John Cusack), the music-addicted, obsessively list-making owner of a low-rent record store called Championship Vinyl. The departure of his live-in girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) sets the already reflective Rob to recalling his previous relationships with women, specifically those on a list of his Top 5 Worst Breakups. Rob decides to contact the women on his list, while trying to convince Laura to return to him. But then he becomes interested in a singer, Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet, looking at bit like her ex-husband Lenny Kravitz before the haircut), and discovers that Laura is seeing the mysterious Ian (Tim Robbins at his funniest). Rob has all this and more on his mind.


The strength of the novel lies in Rob’s funny, engaging, and self-consciously confessional narrative voice. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriters D.V. Devincentis, Steve Pink, Cusack, and Scott Rosenberg, have Rob delivering monologues to the camera, listing pop songs usually but also lists of jobs he would like or things he misses about Laura. These sections and others leave whole chunks of the book intact. I will note a few changes in the course of this review, but the major change from the novel to screen is transferring the action from London (book) to Chicago (film). This change allows Rob’s statement early in the film that John Dillinger was killed next to the theater in the background, and Dillinger’s girlfriend, Rob reports ominously, tipped off the police. Which brings me to the next point.


4. High Fidelity is entertaining.


This is a wholly subjective statement. I confess I have read the Hornby book (twice) and marked the (many) passages that made me giggle. I wanted to enjoy this film and I am thankful I did. Many of the audience members at the screening I attended had also clearly read the book, as I often heard laughter beginning before the completion of a joke.


Some of the jokes (the Dillinger line above for example) are new, but all them are brought off nicely by a fine cast. Cusack is more restrained and light on his feet here than he was in Being John Malkovich, often scowling to convey years of disappointment and fading dreams, but letting a smile slip through occasionally as well. His encounters with his co-workers Barry (Jack Black, yelling with relish) and Dick (Todd Louiso, magnificently awkward) are comic highlights. In the store one day, Barry declares that his band has “German influences” but declines to be more specific. So Rob sarcastically offers up some answers: “Kraftwerk? Falco? Hasslehoff?” This is not a joke just anyone would make, or one just anyone get. Which partially brings me to the next reason.


3. While High Fidelity still has great appeal to a particular audience, the film broadens its potential audience with a more balanced treatment of the women in the story.


In the joke quoted above, the inclusion of the band Kraftwerk will divide audiences into those who ask, “Who’s that?” and those who respond, “You don’t want to know,” and a handful who think, “I’ve haven’t listened to that LP in years! What closet is that in?” Those who do know all three mentioned artists may spend their Saturday afternoons in secondhand record and cd stores, where they know the employees and have access to the bootleg room. Our narrator is one of these guys (though he owns the record store) so his perspective is often quite familiar to some readers.


The reader of the novel — perhaps identifying with Rob — tends to forgive his rather narrow perspective, but in the film it is easier to note his failings, particularly his view of women, which will likely expand the film’s appeal. In the book, one result of his narration is that the women quite literally only exist when he thinks about one of them. In both film and book, Rob says that Laura is “smarter” and more mature than he is, but in the film we can see (and sympathize with) Laura’s frustration with Rob in actress Iben Hjejle’s eyes. Her response to Rob’s constant questions about her sex life with Ian, make them seem less amusing than sad. Laura in the film exists quite independent of Rob’s opinions of her, as we learn in one moment in particular. After the funeral for Laura’s father (who dies suddenly), Rob apologies to Laura and leaves in a rush. Laura goes after him in her car but checks herself in the mirror before she leaves. This is a moment outside of Rob’s perspective, and not in the novel, which shows Laura’s self-consciousness.


There’s one other way the film depicts women differently from the novel. Dick’s girlfriend Anna in the novel is — horrors! — a fan of Simple Minds, but in the film (as played by Sara Gilbert), Anna is clearly Dick’s match in matters of musical taste and their attraction is a result of an exchange in the store about Green Day’s influences. This is significant since it shows a woman as the cultural “equal” of the (over)informed Dick and because taste matters a great deal to the workers at Championship Vinyl. Which brings me to the next point.


2. High Fidelity insists that pop matters.


Rob, Dick, and Barry in particular depict one way that pop taste influences their lives: it determines their opinions of other people. Rob says, “What really matters is what you like, not what you’re like.” For him and his co-workers, taste is exclusionary, a marker for those people worth your respect and those you need avoid at all costs (or berate). Rob has a deeper understanding of the influence of pop culture than his comment above indicates. He understands, in his own admittedly small way, that pop culture (music in particular) has made him who he is. The first thing he says in the film is “Which came first — the music or the misery? Do I listen to pop music because I am miserable or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?” He knows at some level that how he outwardly expresses sadness, and his feeling of sadness itself, are partially products of the culture that surrounds him and that he more or less gleefully embraces.


Moreover, his immersion in pop music has resulted in a loss of human connection. He, Barry, and Dick respond to the death of Laura’s father with a list of the top 5 pop songs about death (including “Leader of the Pack” and “Dead Man’s Curve”). It is a bittersweet moment in the film (and book) and swiftly illustrates that for them, death is pop song fodder, like love and everything else. Through the actions and words of Laura, the film proposes that Rob (re)connect with others by taking an a job which gives him pleasure (becoming a DJ again), by learning to respect others’ tastes, and even learning that taste is not another person’s single defining characteristic.


The film adds another element to Rob’s process of transformation: he begins not only to sell but to release CDs. Some skateboarding kids Rob once caught stealing from the store have made an album which Rob and his co-workers immediately realize is good so Rob releases the band’s work as a cd. Laura praises Rob’s transition from “professional appreciator” to being “part of it.” Further evidence that these men need to produce and create, rather than simply critique, is seen in Barry’s gleeful participation as a singer in a band (though we never learn who his “German influences” are). As a singer, he too becomes part of the music rather than simply a listener.


1. Finally, High Fidelity is worth seeing because it is a piece of pop culture that continues the cycle.


The novel on which this film is based has changed behaviors, encouraged dreams, shaped the thoughts, hopes, and expectations of people all over the world, and given time, so too will the film. More than pedaling soundtrack albums, seeing John Cusack snuggling with beautiful women like Catherine Zeta-Jones and also maintaining a large record collection will bring hope into many lives.


I would also note one more way this film carries on the complicated influences of pop culture. Rob’s mix tapes are a means of vaguely innocent seduction, but also a sinister form of mentoring. Hornby’s book has become the same thing for some readers, a way to test potential friends, dates, etc. When you are given this book by someone, be aware that you are likely being tested. (Another confession: I have recommended this book to a few young women.) It is to the credit of all those involved in the making of the film High Fidelity that invitations to see this funny and charming film are likely to be loaded with expectations. You have been warned.

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