Underappreciated Masterpiece: High Fidelity
“I saw that John Cusack flick “High Fidelity” on Comedy Central once.”
No you didn’t.
What you saw was something edited beyond recognition that makes the film look quite mediocre. Hopefully that’s why they stopped showing it there.
In actuality, “High Fidelity” is one of the smartest, funniest, well-observed, bad-time-good-time movies about modern romance ever produced.
To be fair, it had quite a lot going for it from the start for me. It is based on a favorite book of the same title, by British writer, Nick Hornby. I first encountered the story in that form when I was working in a book store (obviously without the references to later books noted on this copy).
As a single young adult male audiophile who was spending his days selling mass-produced culture to mall shoppers and his evenings creating locally-produced culture in the form of theatre, this seemed like the novel for me to begin with. The fact that the story took place in England was only a bonus in my mind, as I was also a self-confessed Anglophile.
Oh yes…and then there was the title. “High Fidelity” was well known to me as the title of a wonderfully punchy R&B Elvis Costello single from his “Get Happy” album. The name of the album is referenced as a goal for the main character by his girlfriend in the book.
Then I actually read it and found out that the author could really write. His characters were recognizable, but unique, and his story was reasonably universal without being predictable. I felt like I knew the people and cared about what happened to them, a feeling I had rarely had before in stories focused on romance. I read the thing three times, a distinction I believe is unique for a novel with me.
When it was announced that a film version of the story would be released, starring John Cusack, directed by Stephen Frears, and transplanted from England to Chicago, I had mixed feelings. Hollywood has a rather spotty history with bringing books to the screen. Even the films that have turned out well are often judged to be “not as good as the book.” The source of many complaints often has to do with the intrinsic differences between the two storytelling art forms. It also often revolves around changes that the filmmakers feel have to be made to accommodate for those differences. The shipping of the story across the Atlantic to Chicago did not seem like a good sign to me. It seemed like a convenience for Cusack, who is from that area.
As much as I had loved Chicago during the 27 months I had lived there, it just didn’t seem right to me.
I needn’t have worried. The film pulls off the trick of being both extraordinarily faithful to the source material and completely at home in its Cook County confines. The story is told to us by the main character, “Rob Gordon” (Fleming in the novel), as played by Cusack. Rob is not necessarily a reliable narrator outside of being truthful about what he is feeling and thinking. His perceptions of the events around him reveal that he can be a bit self-centered and sometimes outright clueless. This is one of the strengths of both the novel and film. Selfishness is one of the identifying characteristics of living things. How we internally navigate the gap between what we want and what is culturally appropriate is the source of a lot of drama and comedy. It is also a primary theme in most of Hornby’s writing.
At the outset of the film, Rob’s most recent girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle), is throwing her things into her car and pulling away from the apartment they had been sharing until tonight. This newest romantic failure leads Rob to dive head-first into both his record collection and the history of his love life, looking for answers to his miserable state. In flashbacks, we get a full rundown on the kind of women Rob has dated, how it has affected him, and what kind of guy we’re dealing with here to begin with.
Rob’s most significant exes are (in chronological order) Alison Ashmore (Shannon Stillo), Penny Hardwick (Joelle Carter), Charlie Nicholson (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Sarah Kendrew (Lili Taylor). They are a mixed bag, as are Rob’s circumstances at the time of each relationship, something that he readily volunteers, but doesn’t seem to account for in his diagnosis of his overall situation. In a fit of dubious self-discovery, Rob decides to contact them all in his quest for understanding.
Meanwhile, we get to know about the life that Rob currently inhabits. He is the owner/manager of a failing vinyl record shop and ineffectual boss to two younger audiophiles who have, sadly enough, become his only friends. He grew up in Chicago, so you can only assume that all of his long-time friends have long since gotten married and moved on with their lives. The world of the record store and the fetishists who populate it is one in which Rob is simultaneously comfortable and drowning in. Rob is well into his thirties, and while he still enjoys learning about new artists, he clearly is not as voracious as he used to be. His overall tastes are pretty much set, a fact that is anathema to his still-voracious employees, Barry and Dick.
The three of them kill the often empty-store weekday hours challenging each other to come up with the best “top 5 list” for any given topic.
-“Best Side 1, Track 1” (The answer is the title track from The Clash’s “London Calling,” by the way)
-“Best Song About Death” (The answer is “Old Man” from Randy Newman’s “Sail Away.”)
Jack Black is perhaps best known for his starring roles in films like “School of Rock,” “Shallow Hal,” “King Kong,” and “Nacho Libre.” This is the role, however, that I always think of when it comes to the Tenacious D front man’s acting career. His Barry is brash, opinionated, ludicrous, vulnerable, hysterical, and absolutely steals most of the scenes he’s in. When he starts a band, it’s easy to forget that Black can sing pretty well, and believe that Barry can’t. In a scene that was criminally left on the cutting room floor, Rob confronts Barry about it.
Todd Louiso’s performance as the shy and uncomfortable-in-his-own-skin Dick works in stark contrast to Black’s Barry, creating a 90s underground record store’s Felix and Oscar.
“High Fidelity” is also jammed to the gills with pleasantly surprising supporting players and cameos, including Lisa Bonet, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Sarah Gilbert, and, yes, “The Boss,” Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen is part of just one of several daydreams/hallucinations/fantasies that Rob has over the course of the film. These visions do the job of not only communicating how the character is feeling, but of reflecting the chaotic emotional life of the romantically destroyed. The single life could be a real roller coaster, couldn’t it? One I’m not overly anxious to ride again.
The film appeals to me additionally in the accuracy of how it depicts the Chicago I remember from my days there in the 90s. Not the downtown and “seeing the sights” Chicago I’ve been back to vacation in, but the fantastic ramshackle neighborhoods filled with tiny coffee shops, owner-run retail stores, brownstones and the walk-up apartment buildings with heavy wooden stair rails that I lived in. So often, movies get the details of cities wrong, choosing fun locations instead of accurate ones. “High Fidelity’s” locations all seem to make sense from scene to scene. I have personally crossed the street from The Biograph movie theatre to Lounge Ax (don’t look for it. It’s not there anymore) like Cusack does.
“High Fidelity” works on romance in far more realistic terms than 99 percent of Hollywood movies. Romance is messy. And it’s not really just between two people. You know the saying about how when you sleep with someone, you’re actually also sleeping with everyone they’ve ever slept with? It’s an effective image that was introduced as a warning to the promiscuous in the AIDS era. But it has been true in other ways for a long time. You can let that warn you off, or you can let it inform how you react to your loved ones. The choice is yours, but it would be a mistake to ignore.