“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
In my later teenage years, High Fidelity is probably the film I watched more than any other. Stephen Frears’ comedy drama is a funny and poignant adaptation of Nick Hornby’s immensely popular book which deals with typically male neuroses surrounding commitment, women and the future, combined with a lifelong obsession with music.
The main character Rob Gordon (John Cusack) acts as our narrator and guide through the movie as the downfall of his relationship with Laura (Iben Hjejle) sparks off a quest to revisit doomed romances of his past. The fact that Rob regularly breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the viewer directly adds to the idea that a lot of what we are seeing is in effect his own internal monologue. Now obviously, Rob therefore delivers a slightly biased version of events but as we are privy to his innermost thoughts and how his rationale works, you soon can’t help but take his side on things, even when he’s being a bit of a grumpy bastard.
After Laura walks out on him and shacks up with a new-age hipster type called Ian, (Tim Robbins), Rob runs us through his top five all time worst break-ups and then begins to dissect them in order. With a little help from Bruce Springsteen in a top-notch cameo, he decides to get in touch with the women involved and talk to them, see where he went wrong and what he can learn from it, “thanks Boss”. This top five adventure meets with mixed success. It starts off well with him learning that his very first girlfriend from High School ended up marrying the guy she left Rob for, that’s fate and thus nothing for him to worry about. Likewise the second girl on Rob’s list, Penny, gets rather upset when Rob tries to talk to her about their break up and points out that it was actually him who dumped her, which is music to Rob’s ears, “that’s right, I finished with her….that’s another one I don’t have to worry about”.
Things take a turn for the worst though when he gets back in touch with the toughest break up of his life, the flamboyant Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Charlie really messed Rob up several years ago and it was their break up which led Rob to drop out of College and start working in a record store. This is the big one. Charlie delivers Rob some painful home truths which force him to really look at his own failings. Then, when Laura’s dad sadly passes away, she and Rob get reacquainted and it looks like Rob may get another shot at making things work.
A large portion of the story takes place in Rob’s Record Store, Championship Vinyl, a muso’s mecca where he works alongside fellow music snobs Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). These three know-it-alls each have a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of popular music and freely admit to looking down on anyone who knows less than them (which is everybody). The three amigos talk about music and their musical preference in the same way you might do with you friends, only marginally more wittily and far more knowledgably. Whether it’s the the ill-fated top-five songs about death (Laura’s dad tribute list) discussion or simply the look of exasperation on Dick’s face when someone mistakes Stiff Little Fingers for Green Day, it’s these moments in Championship Vinyl which will inevitably raise a wry smile from viewers of a certain disposition.
Rob’s music obsession, an obsession which he often hides behind, is all encompassing to the point where he almost looks back on his life in soundtrack form. He even goes so far as to rearrange his extensive record collection into autobiographical order. It’s amusing and comforting in a way to see Rob relating to his life by associating certain songs and albums with specific times and places. It’s something I’m sure a lot of us have done at some point be it with music, film or maybe something else entirely.
Director Stephen Frears and the cabal of screenwriters do a great job of relocating the story to Chicago and still managing to keep the tone of the book intact. I still now can’t re-read the book without hearing Cusack’s voice as Rob and picturing Jack Black delivering all of Barry lines. Cusack is perfectly cast as the morose yet surprisingly lovable lead role. Hornby himself, who apparently loved the film, went as far as to say, “At times, it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book.” Black is usually a fairly hit and miss actor for me but in High Fidelity he is on top form and is the source of a great deal of the laughs throughout the movie. See in particular his refusal to sell “I just called to say I love you” to an unfortunate customer.
As you might imagine for a film centred upon popular music, High Fidelity also packs a seriously impressive soundtrack which includes Bob Dylan and The Beta Band to Stevie Wonder and Jackie Wilson.
I’m a huge fan of Nick Hornby’s books, in particular this and Fever Pitch, both of which articulate male feelings towards things like football, music, women and life in general better than I ever could. It’s refreshing therefore to see a movie like High Fidelity which really does its source material justice. After countless repeat watches, it’s still as enjoyable and easy to watch as ever.
So……top five side one, track one’s…..go.