Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Honoring The 10th Anniversary Of HIGH FIDELITY

Although it didn’t come in at #1 at the box office over its opening weekend, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE is certainly John Cusack’s most notable movie in years.

10 years in fact. For March 31st, 2000 was the US release date of HIGH FIDELITY, a defining film of Cusack’s career, and one of my all-time favorite films. So to honor the film on its 10th birthday here’s a personal look back at the film beginning with the original book: 

When I heard, sometime in the late 90’s, that they were going to make a movie version of Nick Hornby’s best selling novel “High Fidelity”, I was very skeptical. This was more than just the usual “the book is always better” argument, I felt like this book was my personal emotional property.

Well, the kind of personal emotional property that one shares in common with a huge group of people, but it’s just that I was, and still am to some extent, one of “those guys” that the book described in excruciating yet hilarious detail. You see, in this case “those guys” are the guys who are rock snob geeks who have lousy love-lives but have amazing record collections.

A friend, another one of “those guys”, recommended me the book shortly after its publication in 1995. At that time I worked in a CD store in a strip mall in Greensboro, North Carolina - I moved to that area earlier in the decade because I wanted to be with my girlfriend of over 6 years. In the days after our painful break-up I toiled behind the counters of this new and used compact disc retail store making lists of favorite songs, joining my co-workers in belittling clueless customers, and trying to get over the piles of baggage I was still carrying from that doomed relationship.

The experience of first reading “High Fidelity” was actually a bit disconcerting – I felt it hit too close to home. I joked to friends that it made me feel like I had been bugged, like somebody had been recording all my conversations about what songs to play at a funeral or what’s the best album opening song ever and mixing in exact statements made in fights between me and my ex and turning in them into clever prose. I grew to love it and laugh with it but I still wondered – who was this Nick Hornby fellow and how did he know so much about me?

So by the time the movie was announced, the book was a pretty hardcore emotional touchstone in my psyche. I knew that it was the same for tons of “those guys” out there who all felt this book was about them – oh, no a movie could ruin our sacred text, making it into another rom com that doesn’t take any of this record store culture seriously!

But when I heard John Cusack was starring (and co-writing) and THE GRIFTERS (a Cusack favorite of mine) director Stephen Frears was attached, some of my cynicism evaporated.

The cynicism that remained was directed at the fact that the book took place in London and was written in what I felt at the time was a very British voice. The book was also named after an Elvis Costello song for Christ sakes!

What I didn’t consider was that “those guys” were everywhere and the location didn’t matter. So as protagonist Rob Gordon (his last name was Fleming in the book but ostensibly that would’ve been too British) says: “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like”, I had to realize that it’s not where you are, it’s still just what you like.

While the setting of the story moved to Chicago, and it contains lots of great locales (The Double Door, Lincoln Park, The Biograph Theater), people everywhere live their lives through the filter of pop culture so it could have been reasonably set anywhere.

I also should’ve considered that Cusack himself is one of “those guys.”

He took the text seriously and worked hard to keep its heart and content largely intact. Viewing it for the first time on the big screen 10 years ago I was delighted at how faithful it was to its source. Hornby agreed: “At times, it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book” he told the New York Times at the time of the film’s release.

The film got so many things right – the pop culture riffing wasn’t forced, the soundtrack (The Kinks, Stereolab, Bob Dylan, The Beta Band, The Velvet Underground, etc.) was well chosen, and I don’t think any movie has better depicted how it feels to try to get through a day at your workplace when your heart is broken to pieces.

I’ve been in many independent record stores that highly resembled Rob’s shop Championship Vinyl with every surface covered in rock 'n roll posters, promotional stickers, and concert flyers. Between that and Rob’s apartment, there is no end to trying to identify every cool rock signifier in sight – oh, there’s Sonic Youth’s “Goo”!

There’s a poster for pre-label Pavement! There’s Brian Eno’s “Before and After Science” on vinyl and then later held up by Rob on CD! This was also pointed out in this blogpost.

In all the times I’ve watched the film over the years its arc never tires me – though the thought of enduring the same stuff in real life does. The boy loses girl, boy goes on a neurotic quest to understand why every relationship he’s had failed while wanting his ex to return arc is so amusing and empowering to watch here as a witty movie, but living through that is Hell. After a more recent break-up than the one I spoke of earlier I drunkenly considered calling my “top 5” exes like Rob does, but thankfully came to my senses with no misguided contact made.

Throughout the film Cusack addresses the camera directly, another move I wasn't sure I'd be keen on, guiding us through his heartache. It's an effective device because there is no other meta gimmickry or self referential winking going on - the words and his performance stand alone.

There are so many great lines, most of which directly from the Hornby novel, that still hit close to home, but after this long they sting in a good way:

“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

“No woman in the history of the world is having better sex than the sex you are having with Ian…in my head.”

“Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many dos and don'ts. First of all you're using someone else's poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing.”

That last quote, incidentally, I've gotten as a sound sniplet on many mix-tapes then later CDR comps - an obvious choice but a good one.

At this point I must note Jack Black absolutely steals the movie away from Cusack’s lovelorn lamenting with a full throttle performance that brought him to the attention of many. He owns the screen as the loud mouth rock fan with musical aspirations who shouts down anybody who disagrees with him. The way he aggravates Rob constantly saying such things as: “Rob, I'm telling you this for your own good, that's the worst fuckin' sweater I've ever seen, that's a Cosby sweater!” is among the film’s best running jokes.

As much as I love this film I have some reservations.

In a scene set at the now defunct Chicago club, the Lounge Axe, Rob’s just as musically obsessive employees Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso and Jack Black) fantasize about wanting to date a musician. “I want to live with a musician. They’d write songs at home and ask me what I think of them; maybe include one of our private little jokes in the liner notes.”

Uh, no you wouldn’t. As obsessive as these guys are they would be jealously tortured by the nights when their dream musician would be at a late seemingly never ending recording session or out on the road sleeping in hotel or van with their fellow band mates. I’m just saying, because, yes, I dated a musician. Of course, I realize that their tunnel vision delusion may be a crucial point of social satire.

Rob’s ex girlfriend Laura is played by the still little known Iben Hjejle and while she has some chemistry with Cusack she seems a bit off. Likewise Lisa Bonet as the dream musician Rob beds on the side of his heartbroken agony. But, again, the fact that the women in Rob’s life are miscast may be precisely the point as well.

I would never call this film a “rom com” because the only thing our protagonist is truly romantic about is music. Even as it settles into a happy ending grove with Rob adding Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)” to a mix-tape for Laura, you get the sense that the just reconciled relationship is still doomed. The film essentially plays on an endless loop as real life on again, off again relationships often do.

So, 10 years later the question isn’t does HIGH FIDELITY still hold up, because of course it does. As Rob puts it: “It would be nice to think that since I was 14, times have changed. Relationships have become more sophisticated. Females less cruel. Skins thicker. Instincts more developed.” But he comes to the pretty much the same conclusion that one of his heroes Elvis Costello did: “History repeats the same defeats, the glib replies, the same defeats.”

So the real question that remains is what Rob posits at the beginning of the film: “What came first, the music or the misery?” I would say the music because when the misery came later we had a soundtrack to it already picked out and waiting.

In the decade since HIGH FIDELITY, Cusack has gone through a run of mostly mediocre movies including RUNAWAY JURY, MARTIAN CHILD, GRACE IS GONE, and 2012. It's amusing that in his first truly funny movie in 10 years, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE of course, has him at one point heartbroken and drunk, sitting on the floor writing break-up poetry. Rob Gordon lives on.

The film itself lives on in a couple of odd adaptations. It was turned into a Broadway musical in 2006 by writer David Lindsay-Abaire, lyricist Amanda Green, and composer Tom Kitt. The production closed after only 14 performances and received only lukewarm reviews, but some of the songs are kinda catchy. Can't really comment on the show itself because I haven't seen it but it strikes me that the material may not be translatable to the stage.

The material works better coming from an unexpected platform: the recently released hip hop disc "Don Cusack In High Fidelity" by Donhill, a member of the rap trio Tanya Morgan. The characters and narrative are recast into a satisfying song cycle.

Such lively tracks such as "Championship Vinyl", "Laura' Song", and "Love Junkie" instantly prove that this universally relatable material could really be set anywhere.

More later...


Ceri said...

I like John Cusack. I just don't like the choices he's made recently. What a shame.

I love High Fidelity though. Love the book and loved what they did with the film, even though they moved it to an American setting. I think they both work in their own different ways. :)

The Film Cynics said...

This movie emerged when I was in the heart of working at a record store, at the total height of my music snobbiness and the early days of my movie snobbiness, so it couldn't have come at a better/worse time. I tend to remember it more for Jack Black, in that Cusack was totally familiar to me, but Black was more of an untested quality. Little did I know that he'd be playing the same kind of character in each subsequent film.

I really wish they'd left in the whole scene where Rob buys the 45s off Beverly D'Angelo. It would have cast Rob in a slightly more sympathetic light.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane. A great tribute.

malevans said...

"History repeats the same ...

DubMC said...

"It's amusing that in his first truly funny movie in 10 years, HOT TUB TIME MACHINE of course, has him at one point heartbroken and drunk, sitting on the floor writing break-up poetry. Rob Gordon lives on."

This was pretty much the only time I liked him in HTTM, and probably for that reason - Cusack felt invested in those scenes. He was committed, taking action, and he was interesting. It was a spark, and I only wish the rest of HTTM hadn't doused the flame.

Not that it's a bad movie, in my mind. He just wasn't as good in it as he could have been.

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High Fidelity said...

I actually liked it when Rob speaks directly at the camera, I know that sometimes it can be corny, but i think it works out great in this specific movie.

I haven't read the book, but judging by the comments made about it I guess I really should.

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