Most rock ‘n’ roll movies are like superhero flicks. A guy or girl (or sometimes a group of guys and/or girls) goes from something to nothing, battles external forces and inner demons, and suffers crushing setbacks before triumphing in the end. Give Spider-Man a guitar, and he’s basically Johnny Cash.
High Fidelity is an entirely different type of story. Released 15 years ago this week, director Stephen Frears’ big-screen adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel centers on the lowliest, least heroic characters in the rock ‘n’ roll universe: record-store clerks and their like-minded clientele.
They’re neither creators nor professional critics nor devoted fans who derive joy from following their favorite artists. They’re fickle, temperamental, obsessive collectors who define themselves by their tastes — which, in case you were wondering, are way better than yours.
High Fidelity is both a loving portrait and a cautionary tale, as main character Rob Gordon — played to lumpy, grumpy perfection by John Cusack — is a guy who knows tons about pop music and little about people. The film, like the novel, follows Rob as he reconnects with the women behind his All-Time Top 5 Breakups, a list he compiles after being dumped by Laura, the film’s female lead. Rob wants badly to find out why he’s destined to be alone, and along the way, he learns some valuable lessons.
And so do we. Ahead: The Top 5 Things We Learned from High Fidelity.
1. Lists Make Life Better
In 2000, the Internet wasn’t quite what it is today, and the listicle had yet to emerge as the preeminent form of American journalism. Credit Rob and his Championship Vinyl underlings Barry (a brilliant Jack Black) and Dick (a terrifically awkward Todd Louiso) for being ahead of the curve. Rob and the “musical moron twins,” as he calls them, spend much of the film sharing inventories like the Top 5 Songs to Play on a Monday Morning, Top 5 Songs to Play at Your Funeral, and even the Top 5 Musical Crimes Perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the ‘80s.
Lists are great because they (1) pass the time, (2) spark conversation, (3) encourage intellectual debate, and (4) force us to organize our thoughts and tidy up those junk drawers we call brains. What are the best songs about trees? The most essential Flying Nun releases? The least appropriate songs to play after your wife tells you she’s pregnant or having an affair? No matter how inane, every such question has five answers — or more if you’re running a website. While it can’t be “bullshit to state a preference,” as Rob says, some preferences are more valid than others. Fill your list with really smart and obscure picks, and (5) you’ll assert your knowledge and win the pop-culture dick-joust. List ‘em carefully.
2. Yeah, it’s what you like — but mostly, it’s what you’re like
At one point in the film, Rob shares a theory he’s devised with Dick and Barry: It’s what you like, not what you’re like. The idea is that our pop-culture tastes are more important than our personality traits, especially when it comes to friendship and romantic coupling. The film presents some evidence that this is true. Rob has a splendid night of expectation-free sex with Lisa Bonnet’s character, Marie De Salle, a musician who digs all the right bands and can even make Peter Fucking Frampton sound good. Rob and Marie connect on music and movies before they get to schtupping, but she’s also a nice person, so she doesn’t count.
Turning to Rob’s all-time top-five exes — the women he’s loved and who’ve loved him back — none seem to have particularly good taste in music or art. (Catherine Zeta Jones’ Charlie might be the exception, unless that rad Pretenders T-shirt she rocks post-coitus is Rob’s.) In the end, Rob finds happiness with Laura, an Art Garfunkel fan who never wants to see the same movies as him. She probably hasn’t even seen Evil Dead 2. “Books, records, films — these things matter,” Rob says. They do, but only to a point. Otherwise, he’d marry Dick and get it over with.
3. Reality > fantasy
One of Rob’s big takeaways from his deep dive into past relationships — particularly the one with Laura — is that he’s stuck on fantasies. The panties are always redder and silkier in the next girl’s apartment, and toward the end of the film, even after he and Laura have patched things up, he nearly falls for the pretty, young alt-weekly columnist who asks him to make a mixtape. She’s got cotton underwear and annoying habits, too, and if Rob leaves Laura, it’s not like he’ll be entering into some dream world of nonstop tantric sex and Pavement/Beefheart/Beta Band listening.
“Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new?” he asks himself. “Well, I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”
He presumably learns his lesson, since the last mixtape we see him making is one for Laura. This is what constitutes emotional growth in Rob’s world, and even the great Stevie Wonder gets a reappraisal, as the tape includes “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”.
4. Memory is selective
Just as Rob organizes his records “autobiographically,” choosing to remember certain things about, say, Fleetwood Mac’s 1975 self-titled album (he didn’t give it to someone for personal reasons in the fall of ‘83), he constructs a narrative of his romantic adventures that has him playing the perpetual victim. It’s a story he can live with, but it’s not entirely accurate. It turns out he dumped his high school girlfriend, Penny, since she wasn’t ready for sex, and he dodged major bullets with two others: “awful” Charlie and damaged Sarah, who Lili Taylor plays like a grown-up version of her Say Anything character. He needlessly carries the hurt because it makes him feel better, and that’s not healthy.
In the case of Laura, he’s been kind of a “fucking asshole,” as Cusack’s real-life sister Joan tells him. Funny he doesn’t mention that when he first starts moaning about Laura’s leaving. It’s a survival mechanism, his self-deception, but it’s also an impediment to moving forward and becoming a better person. Maybe that’s why Bruce Springsteen tells him to go on his “what does it all mean?” journey that frames the movie. He needs to learn he’s been lying to himself. Thanks, Boss.
5. You can never go wrong with Marvin Gaye
When Laura books Barry’s band, Sonic Death Monkey, to play Rob’s big record-launch party, it seems like a terrible idea. The group’s influences, Barry says, are “mostly German,” and no one figures the squirrely, customer-bashing know-it-all has a decent song in him. He might not, but Marvin Gaye does. Appearing for one night only as Barry Jive and the Uptown Five, SDM do an amazing version of “Let’s Get It On”. The tune has become pop-culture shorthand for sexy time, and it’s often used for comedic effect. Barry makes it funny and sexy but also sincere and kind of reassuring. The worst of Rob’s fears aren’t justified.
The incident might be what later leads Rob to tell Laura that Marvin Gaye is “basically responsible for our entire relationship.” To Rob, the Motown great represents an absolute good. When Laura buys albums by Gaye and Art Garfunkel, Rob is indignant: “How can you like Art Garfunkel and Marvin Gaye? That’s like saying you support the Israelis and the Palestinians.” He stops short of equating Gaye with either side of that conflict, but the point is clear: Gaye is a man you swear allegiance to. He is all powerful, and even now, if you cross him, you’re pretty much screwed.