Beginning earlier this year, John Cusack made the novel decision to tour High Fidelity throughout the country with a screening of the film and a Q&A afterwards. Last Saturday night, my fiance and I made a two-hour trek to Fort Wayne, Indiana to attend the event. Having not seen the film since it was in theaters nearly twenty years ago, I’m happy to report it played like gangbusters. The observations on the immaturity of men and their desire to cling to things (like records and top 5 lists) still encapsulates much of the XY population. This writer scratching this piece out in a Soundgarden t-shirt included – although I’m working on it.
To my mind, the very particular – even peculiar – energy of John Cusack has been captured in full bloom on film just five times. Twice in 1985 with Better Off Dead and The Sure Thing, again in 1989 with Say Anything, then in 1997 with Grosse Point Blank, and finally – and perhaps most perfectly – with High Fidelity in 2000.
Cusack’s natural onscreen persona is a mixture of quick wit and sarcasm mixed with a certain guilelessness and sweetness just below the surface. Adapted from Nick Hornby’s superb 1995 novel of the same name about Rob, the owner of a struggling record store who romantically can’t get out of his own way, High Fidelity was tailor-made for Cusack. He acquired the rights to the film, adapted the screenplay with Steve Pink and D.V. Divincentis, changed the streets signs from London to Chicago, hired the great Stephen Frears to direct, and produced the only authentic record store movie I’ve ever seen (don’t even get me started on Empire Records).
A perspective I come to honestly. I spent five years running a record store in the Midwest from 1991 to 1996. While the store I ran wasn’t in Chicago, it was less than two hours away. I know those streets and those stores. Not only did I sling records at Monday night midnight sales, I knew the doldrums of the morning hours. I know the dusty scent of the bins. I too – like High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon – have refused to sell a record to someone simply because I didn’t think they were deserving. Newsflash: record store guys could sometimes be assholes.
A point that makes High Fidelity a progression in the “John Cusack” movie oeuvre. Cusack as Gordon is sometimes an asshole. He is self-centered, juvenile, and unwilling to commit to a woman who is clearly exactly what he needs and probably too good for him. Rob Gordon cheats on her and borrows money from her he can’t pay back. High Fidelity is a coming of age story about a guy who should have already come of age.
Somehow, we forgive much of this. Why? Largely because he’s played by John Cusack, and in the seamless connection between Hornby’s source material and the actor’s match to the role, you see potential in Rob. As Cusack says in one of many delightful monologues told straight to the audience,
“I’ve been thinking with my guts since I was fourteen years old, and frankly speaking, between you and me, I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”
Moments like that keep you rooting for Rob. Even if it’s against your better judgement. You aren’t the only one either. The beleaguered Laura (played by the luminous Iben Hjejle – how did she not ever become a thing?), breaks up with Rob in the film’s opening scene, but she can’t quite quit him. Their push and pull, their will they or won’t they – grounds the film and provides its heart. When Rob clumsily proposes marriage to Laura near the end of the film, her wary response is both hopeful and realistic. Looking at it again last night in full, it’s one of the most honest depictions of an imperfect relationship (and aren’t they all imperfect?) I’ve ever seen on film.
While High Fidelity is Cusack’s baby, his generosity for his supporting characters abounds. There’s a tart cameo for Catherine Zeta-Jones as Charlie, the girl Rob dated that he always felt he was a station below in intelligence and attractiveness. A mini-Say Anything reunion with Lili Taylor as Rob’s rebound from Charlie. A quietly (and then later not so much) heartbreaking turn from Joelle Carter (later of Justified fame) as the high school girl Rob jilted because she wasn’t ready to sleep with him. A sexy and sly couple of scenes for Lisa Bonet as a local musician who Rob has a night with. Sister Joan gets four terrific scenes as Laura’s friend who is trying not to “take sides” until she learns of Rob’s infidelity and deadbeat borrower ways. Tim Robbins is hilarious as Laura’s phony, new age, bullshit zen rebound who lives one floor up from Rob. Todd Louiso is wonderful as one of Rob’s two employees – a true record store nerd who is so soft and unassuming you feel like a stiff Chicago breeze might catch him and blow him out the doors of Rob’s Championship Vinyl and all throughout it’s Wicker Park location.
Of course, the best of all these stellar supporting roles is played by Jack Black as the second of Rob’s two hires. As many people know, you can have too much Jack Black. Hell, Black’s onscreen identity begins with the concept of being “too much.” But here, we get the perfect amount of Jack Black. From railing against the “sad bastard” music of Belle and Sebastian, to insulting customers, and then to finally – just when you thought you could take not one more second of him – a wonderfully redemptive scene where he belts out Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” at a record release party Rob throws ,and does the classic cut more than a little justice. A sequence that still holds up as one of the most delightful and surprising moments in any movie in recent years. The literal jaw-dropping expressions on Rob and Laura’s faces from Black’s opening bellow (“I’ve been really tryin’, baby…”) perfectly mimics that of the film-goer. It is joyous, levitational, delirious.
The Q&A after the film ended was just as enjoyable as one might have hoped. Cusack was fully engaged and his boyish, slacker charm has not been weathered by the years. He told several terrific vignettes. One confirming my suspicion that at times he just let Black go, while also allowing that all the performers were given a lot of room for improvisation. The bit that tickled my fancy the most was the revelation that the film’s perfectly chosen closing song, Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever” was selected in part as a make good for a scene earlier in the movie trashing Stevie’s “I Just Called To Say I Love You”, where Black chases out a middle-aged dad shopping for his daughter because he has terrible taste.
I must add though, while the evening was a great experience, there was a tinge of sadness. Watching High Fidelity reminded me of how good Cusack is when he’s in his zone. It’s not that he hasn’t done any good work since then. I have a soft spot for the long disregarded The Ice Harvest. Identity and 1408 were solid additions to the horror genre which he anchored. Hot Tub Time Machine is a guilty pleasure, and Love & Mercy and Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq are all great additions to his resume (as are Eight Men Out, The Grifters, Bullets Over Broadway, and Being John Malkovich from before High Fidelity).
It’s just that none of those are “John Cusack movies.” All we have is that handful of gems I referenced in the first paragraph. Who would have thought, going on two decades hence, that the triumphant High Fidelity would be the last of these?
I shouldn’t let that vibe linger though. Because last Saturday I got to see High Fidelity back on the big screen in a beautiful theater. With my fiance by my side, taking note of my onscreen doppelganger that she has been trying to tame. As Rob says when he’s putting together a mix tape for Laura: this time, he’s going to fill it with songs that “she loves.” That message was received by this former record store guy – loud and clear.
The many sounds that meet our ears
The sights our eyes behold
Will open up our merging hearts
And feed our empty souls
I believe when I fall in love with you
It will be forever
Hard to beat.