The music or the misery? Why I will always have High Fidelity

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The first thing to be said about High Fidelity is that it’s straight to the point. There’s nothing flashy in its nature, its narrative or its dialogue. It doesn’t boast great cinematography as Chicago has its work cut out for it already. There are times when it seems both conventional and not-so (A 100 minute film about some mopey guy talking about records? Who gives a rat’s ass?) To the casual viewer it could certainly be described, as my stepfather would say, a ‘perfectly average film’. So why do I love it?

Because I love music, and I love film. The marriage between the two, based on Nick Hornby’s bestseller, seems like heaven on earth. To a 13-year-old boy watching for the first time, indeed it was. The star of High Fidelity is its soundtrack, but saying something so blatantly self-contradicting doesn’t compliment the efforts of Stephen Frears, Cusack and co. in bringing Hornby’s engaging novel across the Atlantic. The performances aren’t stellar but they are terrific. Rob Gordon (an Americanised ‘Fleming’ from the original London-dweller of the novel) is suitably embodied by John Cusack in his most authentic performance after Grosse Point Blank, and Jack Black’s turn as the quasi-hipster record store clerk Barry itself instigated a Bible of snobbery with himself at the pulpit. Barry represents every vinyl wanker you have ever looked upon with envy and/or pity, not for their dashing good looks or style, but in their delightfully scathing attacks on pop culture favourites. Even Stevie Wonder gets his, Barry would argue, with good justification. If you ever wonder how Jack Black came to fame, look no further than the soul section of Championship Vinyl.

The only real star turn is from Tim Robbins’ cameo as Rob’s neighbour Ray, an oily world-music aficionado and suspected tantric sex guru Sting would surely approve of, who brings with him the film’s only moment of actual action – i.e. a sequence in which the three record store clerks, Rob, Dick and Barry pummel him into the ground, finally crushing his head with a speaker cab. Even that’s a mere figment of Rob’s imagination. After all, this is a film set within the mundane universe of college drop-outs, vinyl junkies and the like. The films most suspenseful moment is when two skaters are chased from the store after stealing a bunch of records – when you live and breathe vinyl on the streets of Chicago, the stakes can only be so high.

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The crux of High Fidelity’s accessibility is in both the witty pathos dealt by Rob to the faithful fourth wall, (Hornby himself described these moments as Cusack reading passages straight from the book) and its glorious soundtrack of Costello, The Velvet Underground and Dylan. The studio’s logo has barely materialised when the needle drops and we hear the frenetic rush of the 13th Floor Elevators – the current soundtrack to the life-long anguish of Cusack’s Rob Gordon. The tendency for young boys and men alike to navel-gaze in a heap of misery is no strange thing, and in this case it prompts the age-old question: what came first, the music, or the misery? Are we depressed because of the expectations of love created by pop music, or is the music simply there to aid us in our time of need?

Frustratingly, Rob wastes no time in dismissing this nugget of pop-culture existentialism in order to assault the fourth wall with his Top 5 most memorable and painful breakups – then proceeds to hurl childish proclamations out the window at his ex-girlfriend Laura in the dead of night, giving us a taste of the multi-faceted layers of his personality. That is to say, he’s a bit of a dick. But an honest one; halfway through the film he confesses the most shameful actions which led to his most recent breakup (now sitting at number 5) and the film achieves something pretty astounding for a ‘perfectly average film’: not a perfect protagonist, but a perfectly realistic portrayal of a human, warts and all.

Beneath desperate romance and relentlessly, sometimes foul snobbery, however, lies the film’s core dilemma. Rob spends a heavy amount of time reciting lists of his Top 5 records, movies, books and least favourite breakups, but the two are inextricably linked. If we take the former definition, with Rob being so caught up in his misery and tying it to his Top Fives that he forgets to act rationally, High Fidelity achieves an understated triumph.

The story may be a bit of a meander but as your classic plot structure goes, the film succeeds in portraying the everyman’s journey; At the beginning of the film Rob sinks into his beautiful leather chair, relating his woes to us, while over the course of the story he acknowledges his childish arrogance and the fantastical expectations set up for him by a religious, life long devotion to music. This is the key to High Fidelity’s accessibility – a confirmation of our readiness to soundtrack our lives with the sounds of the 20th Century, but an unwillingness to move past it. Watching it for the first time, High Fidelity transcended its role as a simple comedy-drama about music nerds and did the same thing on a meta level – allowing us to relate to Rob’s desperation in making sense of relationships through music yet remaining naive to the other purpose of the 3-minute pop song – to get us through our misery.

There is a moment, towards the half-way mark of the film which I’m sure introduced a number of people to the majesty of the Beta Band, whereby Rob announces he will sell five copies of their compilation album by sticking on the climax of their most notable song, Dry the Rain (A song so good they used the first 3 minutes again later on in the film). The horns announce themselves throughout the store, and you can tell Rob is spellbound by his own creation. A simple 30 seconds of music brings the atmosphere down to an understated electricity, at which point one customer asks the name of the band. “It’s good”, he says. “I know”, replies Rob in a Han Solo-esque ice-cool response – smug or no, you know it’s what he, like anyone else, was craving to hear.

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By the end of the film, Rob remains sat by his hi-fi preparing another mix tape, only this time for Laura, who has taken him back (albeit after her father’s death, one of the film’s more contrived moments in order to push the two back together). The answer to Rob’s question regrettably, like most philosophy, sits somewhere on the fence. I think we can settle with a solution though – shake the expectations, but not the appreciation.


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