Tuesday, August 1, 2017

In a Groove: Revisiting High Fidelity (2000)

John Cusack as vinyl collector Rob Gordon in High Fidelity 

Chances are, if you've ever spent a great deal of time in a used record store (in the days when there were used record stores), you will probably recognize the crackpot characters that populate Stephen Frears's frisky comedy, High Fidelity. I would also venture to guess that you might see something of yourself in the adolescent obsessions on display – especially if you are a music enthusiast. Based on Nick Hornby's delightfully funny novel, High Fidelity is about how pop music might sow the seeds of love but can't bear the fruit to nourish and sustain our relationships.

Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is a compulsive collector of vinyl who owns a barely-surviving used-record shop in Chicago called Championship Vinyl. Two other self-professed music junkies – Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black) – are his employees, and the group of them are totally consumed by their knowledge of music and ruffle their feathers with pride at how much it makes them outsiders. In truth, however, they are all desperate for human contact. Though they often use their savvy about rock tunes to seduce women, their shrewdness (and snobbery) turns away people whom they don't like (and even those they might want to attract). One day, Rob's girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) leaves him for another guy, which puts him in a total funk. The shock of that betrayal forces him to confront all of his former relationships in an attempt to understand why they've all failed. His music collection becomes a precarious path that traces the wreckage of his love life. The big existential question for Rob is whether his love of rock grows out of his misery or whether he turns to rock to escape his misery. As High Fidelity serves to prove, Rob is a helpless romantic who has taken refuge in vinyl to escape being dragged kicking and screaming into the adult world.

Although Hornby's novel was based in England, the American setting doesn't detract from the themes of the book. Actually, most of the set pieces are recreated perfectly in the film. (Mick Audsley's rhythmic and jazzy editing keeps all of those pieces in a total groove.) If Hornby supplies the spiky riff that taps our deep affection for the instantaneous pleasures offered by pop, Frears builds on that riff to get the novel's mood and rarely loses the beat. High Fidelity has the satisfying kick of a terrific song while simultaneously questioning the source of our satisfaction.

(l.to r. Jack Black, Todd Luiso, John Cusack and Lisa Bonet) 

John Cusack gives Rob a cautious awareness that tells you his radar is always on (whether it takes accurate readings or not). Cusack has always been a great resource for creating likable loners (especially in Say Anything and more recently in Love and Mercy). In High Fidelity, he lets us see how Rob's obsessions and longings commingle to bring out a comical weariness in him. (Yet his hangdog face is accompanied by a wagging tail.) He may have the open and appealing face of a handsome young man, but Rob's Beatle bangs tie him to the chains of adolescence. Cusack gets to woo a bevy of fine women in this picture – including Lisa Bonet and the mesmerizing Catherine Zeta-Jones – and his endless yearning for them becomes his enduring love lyric. Jack Black and Todd Louiso are a study in contrast as Cusack's foils. (They're a slacker Laurel & Hardy comedy team.) Louiso is doing a variation on his role as the babysitter in Jerry Maguire who tried to turn Tom Cruise on to the cool sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. (His tail never wags.) Black, on the other hand, is a live wire who is essentially a hundred acres of nerve endings. His comedy scenes punch High Fidelity into overdrive. As Laura's new lover, Raymond, Tim Robbins provides yet another one-of-a-kind comic counter-punch that stands alongside his earlier roles in Bull Durham and Cadillac Man. Playing a narcissistic guru, he's a walking fortune cookie with a head full of Zen. The only weak link is Iben Hjejle as Laura who is, unfortunately, a little too wan to be the jewel that got away. She doesn't set off the same sparks with Cusack as the other women do.

High Fidelity does have a number of musical in-jokes that might elude (or even annoy) some viewers, but the movie does add up to something all the same. It says that just because we often take the superficial and transient pleasures of pop culture too seriously, it doesn't mean our lives are superficial and transient because of it.  

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger. 

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