"What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all these records turn you into a melancholy person?"
So asks John Cusack, as Rob, in the opening dialogue of the film High Fidelity, just as his girlfriend walks out on him. He wears headphones and talks directly at you. This setup in the film is as ace as the dialogue from the book of the same name.
Any male who has ever defined himself in the slightest way through his record collection knows this scene well. I certainly do.
Being one for whom records and books are/were the easiest route to the avoidance of real social or emotional issues, I took to Nick Hornby's book High Fidelity with much affection four years ago. And having spent half my life either working in or hanging out at record stores staffed by condescending but witty asses with messianic complexes borne of their "superior" pop-bred minds, I grew to realize there is no better forum for record shopping.
And the movie -- which I saw at a Tempe screening last week with a house load of high school and college students who laughed in all the wrong places -- hit home on levels consistent with the aforementioned.
The genius of the book, though it is set in London at a slightly earlier time, is it could be almost anywhere in the Western world. Anywhere, that is, where records are sold in old shops of dubious profit that are equal parts pop-culture museums and connoisseurs' record havens, with split floorboards, walls covered in album covers and posters, and scads of personality.
And the characters are the same -- those top-five-list-making, overeducated underachievers who shake their heads at the backs (or faces) of insipid customers, who spend their nights together in bars because they have neither lives nor girlfriends.
There's Rob, the store-owning protagonist who sees the world grow around his song world.
Dick, the shy, perennially lonesome and prematurely bald music geek, who at one point puts on a Stiff Little Fingers record to show a girl just exactly where Green Day got all its tricks. This maneuver gets him the girl.
And Jack Black, the Tenacious D front man who resembles a young and slightly less rotund Chris Farley, is Barry, achingly accurate as the patronizing, thrift-shop-adorned record clerk who'll belittle you for inquiring about a song that happens to suck.
The story's love thread sees an inert and rather misogynistic Rob losing Laura while foundering in the isolated world of his record collection. Later he is redeemed and gets the girl back while, of course, becoming a more thoughtful version of himself. The film successfully and hilariously anchors heartbreak with an obsession with music.
And it works because the music is never trivialized. In this flick, music is powerful. And in the end, the redemptive qualities of the film don't see its characters give up their innate love of music; they don't have to. They grow up as grown-ups.
The book's first-person narration -- and the film's interior monologue -- is successfully done with a direct address to the camera device that makes you Rob's trusted intimate. You get classic record clerk best-of lists, including what he likes about his girlfriend Laura (played by Iben Hjejle, whom you recall from her comely rug-pissing scene in Mifune), his top five breakups (played here by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lili Taylor, among others) and top five album-opening cuts.
The film varies slightly from the obscure band referencing of the book, supplanting the Ziggy Stardust, Tommy, and Joni Mitchell nods with the cast-picked Beta Band, Richard Hell, and Stereolab.
Brit director Stephen Frears' reworking of Hornby's novel is spiritually conforming, though the setting has been shifted to Chicago from London.
But the real fun of this movie is the record store scenes and the way in which they capture the true essence of the crackerjack employee. Those slack-shouldered aristocrats with auto mechanic hair who -- as brilliantly portrayed in High Fidelity -- would rather tease you with an über-rare Captain Beefheart record than sell it to you. Those whose only power in life is attained through behind-the-counter posturing, their platform for pop/literary ramblings. They get away with getting paid to listen to their favorite records while tormenting customers with contemptuous yet justified jibes. And these clerks somehow endear themselves to us.
Many of my friends and I have all been the same leisured fools, grasping for what we think of as grand conclusions about life through the recesses of our records. And anyone who's ever been -- or has even known -- a record fool can tell you that love of vinyl and song have no territorial or emotional confines.
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Yet those types of privileged-class store clerks -- the ones who stand between you and the perfect peace found in that much-coveted record -- are now as rare as an old issue of Creem magazine. They've been replaced by power teens and the zitted brain-dead, who couldn't tell you any connection between what's old and what's new or that it even matters.
Perhaps those clerks of old have moved on, given up drinking and gotten married, even.
But let us hope they didn't go and grow up. Heaven forfend.
Contact Brian Smith at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org