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Friday, Feb. 16, 2001

'HIGH FIDELITY'

This one's for the record


Call me a vinyl junkie if you will, but I'm one of those guys who files his memories with his music. I could tell you what record I played over and over when my first girlfriend went off to college and stopped answering my letters ("Love Will Tear Us Apart Again," Joy Division, just released as a funereal gray import 7-inch single). Or what I was listening to when the singer in my college art-punk band started getting between me and my two-year flame ("Triad," Jefferson Airplane, trite but true).

John Cusack in Stephen Frears' "High Fidelity."

Perhaps this is why Nick Hornby's novel "High Fidelity," about a thirtysomething record store owner named Rob who obsesses over his mix tapes as much as his breakups, struck such a chord with me. Reading that novel's depiction of intertwined musical and romantic addiction was a mix of delight at recognition, and embarrassment at being nailed so accurately.

The filmed version, directed by Stephen Frears and starring the always excellent John Cusack, takes the book's most telling line and moves it right up front: "Which came first, the music or the misery?" asks Rob, talking straight to the viewer. "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

Throw on George Harrison's "Something" back-to-back with Eric Clapton's "Layla" and ask yourself the same question. (And if you caught the subtext in this example, then see this film, now.) Hornby's novel and Frears' adaptation posits the idea that perhaps the wild passions of one's teens and 20s, the very ur-myth of the pop lexicon, cannot be maintained into middle age, and that doing so is not only hopelessly romantic, but also a form of denial.

"High Fidelity" rips into this material with glee; it's a bittersweet look at the complex interplay between music, emotion and memory. With laser-guided sarcasm, it absolutely shreds the otaku ethos that "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like."

For Rob (Cusack), this is a comforting thought when his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) walks out on him. How could he have spent so many years with a woman with such a bad record collection, he wonders? "High Fidelity" is basically a series of very witty set-pieces as Rob ruminates over his "Top Five Most Memorable Split-Ups," while agonizing over whether to woo Laura back, or to instead go for a fantasy fling with a singer at a local club (Lisa Bonet). Like many a male, he manages to rationalize doing both.

Actually -- and again, this is painfully on-the-mark -- half his motivation for pursuing Laura is mere jealousy that she's with another guy, a New Age ponytail-type (played in a hilarious cameo by Tim Robbins) who Rob fears may be better in bed. As Rob seeks out old girlfriends (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor) to find out why they broke up with him, he finds little solace from his music-nerd buddies, the aggro Barry (Jack Black) and mouselike Dick (Todd Louiso), who can't conceive of a conversation that doesn't revolve around pop music ephemera.

It's hard to imagine an actor other than Cusack pulling this off so well. As he did in "Being John Malkovich," he walks the razor's edge between sympathy and total loser-dom, while keeping us hooked with his cynical motor-mouthed monologues.

Frears pretty much sticks to the confessional style of the book, but he does beef up one of the book's better routines -- Rob and his record-store friends' obsession with Top Five Lists -- and adds a bunch of great record-snob in-jokes.

The film only loses its nerve at one key point: Rob's reunion with Laura. In the book, Rob's cynicism never lets him be as self-aware and repentant as he is in the film. (Frears tried to justify the sweeter tone by saying in Sight and Sound that this own life had a happy ending.)

Let's give him that. "High Fidelity" is the best portrait of otaku behavior since "Diva." It documents the particularly male addiction to obsessive detail that provides solace where real relationships don't, a sense of control in a world full of chaos. But for any dreamer, male or female, who's only made it through a bad spell on the wings of a heart-tugging chord change, this is your film.

"High Fidelity" opens March 3 at Yebisu Garden Cinema.


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