The following was originally published 17 August 2008. This lazy attempt at recycling is my contribution to Ibetolis’s “Counting Down the Zeroes” series at Film for the Soul, in which he compels the Internet to rhapsodize on the best films of the ’00s. one year at a time.
High Fidelity (2000)
Screenplay by John Cusack & D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink. Based on the novel by Nick Hornby
Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by Dogstar Films/ New Crime Productions/ Working Title Films/ Touchstone Pictures
Running time: 113 minutes
What the *&#! Is This About?
“What came first, the music or the misery?” Rob Gordon (John Cusack) asks the audience as his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) moves out. When his record collection fails to soothe his heartache, Rob recounts his “Desert Island, All Time, Top Five Most Memorable Breakups, in chronological order.” He tells himself that Laura doesn’t crack the list. Rob owns the Chicago record store Championship Vinyl. “I get by because people make a special effort to shop here,” he continues, “Mostly young men who spend all their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and original – not re-released, underlined – Frank Zappa albums.”
Bookended at the store by the shy and awkward Dick (Todd Louiso) and the manic Barry (Jack Black), Rob broods over Laura and makes a half-hearted attempt to win her back. A shared friend (Joan Cusack) reveals that his ex has moved in with “this Ian guy.” Rob deduces that Ian (Tim Robbins) is their flaky former upstairs neighbor and torments himself imagining Laura having sex with him. He finally admits that Laura is indeed in his top five breakups of all time. His wounded, sensitive side appeals to singer Marie DeSalle (Lisa Bonet) who poured her breakup woes into her music and has a compassionate one-night stand with Rob.
With the encouragement of Bruce Springsteen, Rob tracks down the rest of his Top Five breakup list, including the introspective Sarah (Lili Taylor) and the obnoxious Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones). None of the women boost Rob’s ego to the extent he needs to get over Laura, but when her father dies, she invites him to the funeral. In her grief, Laura decides to give Rob another chance, helping him promote a record release party for two skateboarding punks whose album Rob produces. This brings him to the attention of Caroline Fortis (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a music columnist who has Rob second guessing his relationship status all over again.
Who Should Be Held Responsible?
Published in 1995, High Fidelity was the first novel by English essayist Nick Hornby. It told the story of Rob Fleming, a self-absorbed record shop owner in London who soothes a breakup with his girlfriend Laura by generating trivial “top five lists” with Dick and Barry, the audiophiles who work in his store. According to Hornby, “People would come up and say, ‘This book is about me – literally, this book is about me.’ I’ve been told, I don’t know how many times, ‘I know the record shop you wrote about,’ and the shop’s in some part of the country I’ve never been to. It’s a fairly depressing indictment of the state of things, I think.”
Mike Newell optioned the novel and set it up at Disney, where Scott Rosenberg wrote a draft. Looking for a better take, the studio ultimately sent the book to John Cusack, who’d rewritten Grosse Pointe Blank with two high school buddies from Chicago named D.V. DeVincentis & Steve Pink. The locations and characters Hornby described reminded Cusack of his hometown, and the actor also felt “that many young men can identify with Rob’s inner monologue, which is spoken through great, incisive writing. It’s a very funny book, but he also captured this particular type of character with brutal honesty. And it’s actually kind of strangely romantic in a way, so I felt the combination of all those things was really remarkable.”
After receiving Hornby’s blessing to relocate his narrative from London to Chicago, the scribes went to work. Cusack recalls, “We’d go through the book and structure it out and then Steve and D.V. would go off and write and then I’d read what they do, and then sometimes I’d go off and I’d write for a while and they’d read it. Finally when we were getting it all together, we’d sit with two or three different computers and say ‘All right, well here’s a checklist of things we need to get done … So, each person would then check something off the list and take a pass at it and then three of us would edit it together.”
Cusack had signed with William Morris Agency to represent him as a screenwriter. Stephen Frears – who directed Cusack in The Grifters – was also a William Morris client, and when he heard the news, asked what the actor was working on. Though skeptical of High Fidelity being taken out of England, when Frears read the script, he changed his mind. “I liked the idea of it being in America. It had a sort of, this sort of more optimistic way in which Americans live, seemed to me to add something to it, rather than taking it away. So it lost some of its stoicism and became slightly more romantic.”
Once Frears came on board, one of his first questions to Cusack and his co-writers was who they thought should play Barry. Without hesitating, they answered “Jack Black.” Black had worked steadily in TV and film, but was unknown to the general public. Todd Louiso walked in to audition and quickly fell into the role of Dick. Settling on the woman Rob spends the film trying to win back did not go as smoothly. Frears was at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999, where a Danish actress named Iben Hjejle was starring in Mifune. Her mother was an English teacher and Hjejle spoke fluent “American.” Frears phoned Cusack to tell him that he’d found Laura in Germany.
High Fidelity commenced filming in Chicago in April 1999. To assemble a soundtrack, Frears gave Cusack and his co-writers free reign. Cusack recalls, “The film has 70 song cues, and we probably listened to 2,000 songs to get those 70 cues. We used our Rob and Dick and Barry dispositions a lot.” One scene in the script called for Rob to converse with Bruce Springsteen in his head. Cusack was sure The Boss would turn them down. To the actor’s surprise, “he kind of just laughed at the idea and said, ‘Send me a script.’ So when we finished shooting, we wrapped around 2 a.m., flew to New York, and taped him in his studio for an hour the next morning.”
Opening in the U.S. in March 2000, High Fidelity became one of the best reviewed films of the year. Stephen Holden, the New York Times: “Even more sharply than the book, the movie evokes the turmoil of urban single life with a quirky mixture of confessional poignancy and dry, self-deflating humor.” Marjorie Baumgarten, the Austin Chronicle: “A smart, funny, and youth-savvy relationship film.” Nick Hornby himself commented, “I never expected it to be so faithful. At times it appears to be a film in which John Cusack reads my book.” It grossed a modest $27 million in the States, quietly recouping its costs.
Why Should I Care?
One of the more sublime things about the film version of Nick Hornby’s hysterical novel is how Rob is altered from an Englishman obsessed with American R&B to an American obsessed with British New Wave and punk: Belle and Sebastian, Stiff Little Fingers, Elvis Costello and Sheila Nicholls all make appearances on the superlative soundtrack. The best news is that High Fidelity lives up to and then surpasses the emotional honesty, edginess and freewheeling creativity of the platters Cusack and company spin over the course of the film. If there’s such thing as a perfect movie, this is it.
Rob’s immaturity might remind women of their least favorite ex, and those too young to have experienced a painful breakup will likely be bored as well, but single urban dwellers with misplaced fetishes will find repeated enjoyment in the film. Stephen Frears deserves much credit for enabling Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Joan Cusack and Tim Robbins to go to another comic level here, while every concept in the script – addressing the audience, employing flashbacks, dramatizing Rob’s insecure psyche – shouldn’t work, but does. The movie contains not one tired plot element, but somehow manages an upbeat, hopeful ending all the same.
Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
“The Cusacks” By Scott Tobias. A.V. Club. 2000 March 29
“Keeping Faith with High Fidelity” By Jamie Malanowski. New York Times, 2000 April 2
““Conversations with Cusack and Frears” High Fidelity DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment (2000)