Any seventeen-year period after the release of a film is going to encompass big cultural changes. That’s just how fast the modern world moves. Even so, the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel High Fidelity has a plethora of time-capsule qualities. I was just a kid in the year 2000, but when I first saw the film eight or nine years later, it didn’t seem like a foreign country … yet. Starting even in the mid-2000s, however, almost everything about the slice of the world portrayed in the film has utterly changed. Record stores, of course, have largely been replaced by internet downloads and streaming. When John Cusack’s character, Rob Gordon, describes the job of a movie critic as “unassailably cool,” he clearly doesn’t anticipate the democratization of internet film culture, or the subsequent colloquial elevation of “fans” over critics. Most jarring of all, though, is the presence of a sticker for the band Train on the counter at Rob’s record store, implying that in the band’s early days, they were considered cool. Someone slightly older than me could confirm or deny this extraordinary idea, but perhaps it would be best to dismiss it anyway as a misguided bit of art direction.
Sharing a release year with a version of Hamlet that staged the “To be or not to be” scene in a Blockbuster video store, High Fidelity looks and feels like its era, an era that would end abruptly. There’s a Seinfeld quality to the film’s characters, people theatrically dissatisfied with their privileged lives but highly satisfied with themselves. The film gently pokes at those people but ultimately lets them have their fun. Rob’s story consists of breaking up with his girlfriend, briefly raging at the dead end his life and career have hit, then getting back together with her and embarking on a promising new venture. It’s a lazy river of a plot, padded out with numerous extended monologues. Addressing the camera, Rob works through his history of failed relationships, indulging in solipsism and occasionally even recognizing it for what it is. The snappy wit of these speeches, tailored to Cusack’s personality (from a script he had a hand in writing), is the necessary entry point to the film. Happily, I’m still hooked from the moment Rob claims that an obsession with music has made him miserable, a problem he’ll do nothing to try and solve in the following two hours.
Myself a dilettante when it comes to music, I remain susceptible to this movie’s claims of authority on the subject. I’ve never explored Stevie Wonder’s output after “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” thanks to the brusque dismissal of Barry Judd — played by Jack Black in his breakout role, a loose-screw supporting turn that birthed his career-defining lead role in School of Rock. It’s also possible that I never really loved the Katrina and the Waves song “Walking on Sunshine” until I saw Barry go nuts over it. Barry and Dick (Todd Louiso), Rob’s two employees at the store, serve essentially as extensions of his own personality, with hilariously contrasting demeanors and tastes. Their clashes inspire a line from Rob about the music playing on the store’s speakers that I’ve thought about constantly in my own retail job: “I just want something I can ignore.” What all three men share, however, is a passion for music and, maybe even more importantly, talking about music. They’ve organized their lives according to the development of rock and pop, memorizing the family trees of various styles and organizing the highlights into top-5 lists. Nerdy as they are in their monomania and snobbishness, these lonely clerks remain an inspiration to me. I long to have this kind of casual command over an art form, and in this way High Fidelity connects with the present day. A group of relatively knowledgeable raconteurs can still command an audience, even on the internet.
Rob’s relationship struggles trigger doubts about his station in life, despite the fact that he has a comfortable apartment and his job relates to his most passionate interest. (To be fair, working retail can drain that passion. When Rob lists his dream jobs, he mentions writing about and playing music, not selling it, though the reality is that these activities are not so easily cleaved.) We’re right back in the time capsule when Rob mentions what he’d do if he decided to abandon his little corner shop, brimful with integrity but not always with customers — he’d apply at a Virgin Records megastore. That drastic move never takes place, as a far better solution falls into Rob’s lap. A couple skating punks who hang around the store turn out to be talented musicians, and Rob decides to produce their first record. This is one of two nods in the film to the local music scene in Chicago, the other being a foxy nightclub performance by one Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet), another of Rob’s romantic interests, albeit only for a short while. Again, like the eponymous lead on Seinfeld, Rob turns down a series of beautiful and interesting women for various reasons. He justifies and exposes himself with those fourth-wall-breaking monologues. In one of them, Bruce Springsteen shows up to bestow absolution — some Annie Hall-by-way-of-Jerry Maguire wish fulfillment. These postmodern touches prime the audience for the movie’s most hilarious scene, in which Rob imagines taking out his aggression on a romantic rival (played by Tim Robbins) before meekly letting him have his say and leave.
The lightness of this film, as with so much pre-9/11 American cinema, is now its most cherishable feature. Rob and Laura (Iben Hjejle) separate, but they continue to peck at each other until the original feelings manage to flare up again. The stakes never get very high. Rob’s jealousy and sexual envy are played for laughs. Even the intrusion of tragedy in the form of Laura’s father’s death can only puncture the bubble for so long. High Fidelity lets its main character off fairly easy, and the film can be read as primarily a catalogue of male gripes about women. There are a couple instances in which the women talk back to him, though. One such woman is played by Cusack’s sister Joan, making a memorably forceful appearance. So, in the end, the movie takes its main character by the shoulders and shakes him lightly, teaching him to be content with his situation. Time has affected many of the details in this film, but I find myself walking right in step with its central idea.