An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: High Fidelity (2000)
- Credit: Ronald Grant Archive / Mary Evan
Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different
High Fidelity; dir: Stephen Frears; starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lisa Bonet, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Sara Gilbert, Bruce Springsteen; Cert: 15 (2000)
When this film was released there was a lot of consternation that the setting had been moved from London to Chicago, but fans of Nick Hornby’s cult novel needn’t have worried because under Stephen Frears careful guidance this Hollywood adaptation of this seminal book is pretty near perfect.
Despite the change of location, Frears has been careful to safeguard the spirit and the tone of the book. He manages to preserve that delicate balance of being a love letter to music geeks/record obsessives and a nicely observed observed, clever, entertaining tale of male-female relationships.
It’s also brilliantly funny and well written, not surprising when you realise that it was adapted by the team behind Grosse Pointe Blank.
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It’s a wonderful evocation of the joys of the independent record store. Today they are an endangered species, protected by events such as International Record Store Day, but between the 1970s and 1990s, they were palaces of musical cool – places where you could discover the latest bands or lay your hands on rare imports.
If a love of rock music forms the backdrop to this movie then an insightful tale of love and romance provides its heart.
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Rob Gordon, played with world-weary resignation by John Cusack, is a 30-something record shop owner with little ambition and even less of an idea about where he is going. His girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjeje) has just left him, which has triggered a crisis of confidence and he plunges into a downward spiral examining how all his past relationships foundered, leading him to ask that painful question: “Is there something wrong with me?”
Meanwhile, his shop employees are pretty much in the same boat, but at least they have a vague sense of direction as Barry, played by a brilliantly on-form Jack Black, is trying to start a band and Dick (Louiso) is falling for a girl (Gilbert) who’s just like him.
Rob, on the other hand, can’t move on at all. His solution, like any real record collector, is to seek some inspiration by reorganising his extensive record collection.
Frears captures the intimate feel of Nick Hornby’s novel by getting Cusack’s Rob to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. Cusack delivers a really engaging performance which makes us sympathise with this seemingly introspective character.
It’s not hard to see why he lost his past girlfriends, which include Lili Taylor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but, against the odds, you do warm to him and this is due to Cusack’s ownership of this sharp, witty script. You get the feeling that Cusack knows Rob very well – I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a lot of Rob inside Cusack himself.
In addition to the record-collecting, list-making Jack Black, the film is packed with scene-stealing cameos from Tim Robbins (as Laura’s New Age new man), the wonderfully eccentric Joan Cusack (Rob & Laura’s straight-talking friend), Lisa Bonet (an aspiring soul singer), a ghostly Bruce Springsteen (as himself), and Zeta-Jones and Taylor as Rob’s flamboyant and pathetic exes.
Music plays a big part in the film. Rob and his employees at the store (they are only employed part-time but turn up everyday – this should tell you something about record collectors) make endless lists, covering songs to fit every mood and every occasion. This is echoed in a stunning ‘80s soundtrack which helps give the film a sense of place and time.
In order to understand where he is going wrong, Rob decides to track down his past lovers and find out what it is that makes him such a hopeless partner. Rob’s voyage of self-discovery brings us an entertaining insight into failed relationships but, also some cringe-making, but ultimately truthful scenes that many men would certainly relate to.
The film is given authenticity by these character details (helped by having Frears behind the camera) and by having Rob’s record store as a tatty, backstreet, goldmine which is just keeping it’s head above water.
This is a store where you would think twice about asking for the Spice Girls latest release in the 1990s but you could ask for rare recordings by The Velvet Underground or a limited edition pressing The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street album.
This is a film that celebrates the strengths and weaknesses of our relationship with music and recognises that its all about passion – both for vinyl and people, but, one shouldn’t get in the way of the other.