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Top 5 Reasons to Love High Fidelity

by Jav Rivera
Cusack and team channel The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"
for the cover of the album and poster.

Growing up in the '80s, I became very familiar with John Cusack's face. Whether seeing him in a tiny role in 16 Candles or as a leading man in the oddball comedy Better Off Dead, Cusack became like a close friend. He was a buddy I could rely on to give great performances and be that relatable "every man." Well, not quite "every man," since most of his characters were outcasts. But they were characters that I understood, and for me they were more normal than the jocks or preppy boys who dominated the movies in the 1980s. Cusack rarely played the popular student, and instead found a niche playing unusual, maybe even socially unacceptable, characters. And even though his characters were usually outsiders, his was the point of view that felt proper. And it became easy to get on board with his characters' ideas.

Before his 2000 film High Fidelity came out, I had last seen him in the critically acclaimed, and financially successful, film Grosse Point Blank, which is another one of Cusack's best. So when High Fidelity arrived in theatres, I was excited to support my buddy.

It also helped that High Fidelity was set in a record store and relied heavily on discussions about music. As a music lover and a Cusack fan, this was going to be an easy film to love. And after watching it for the first time, it was clear that this would be a hidden gem for years to come, perhaps even a classic.

Below are my top five reasons to love High Fidelity.

John Cusack (Rob Gordon) and Jack Black (Barry)
#5 - The Shirts of Barry

Let's start of with a goofy reason. Barry, played by Jack Black, can be found wearing some of the ugliest shirts. Sometimes it's an Aloha (Hawaiian) shirt, sometimes it's a horrific color, and sometimes it's a band shirt that he's clearly wearing ironically (i.e. Yanni). Whatever he's wearing, it's a fun element to the film.

#4 - The Music

This one's kind of a no-brainer. The soundtrack to the film has been acclaimed many times over, and with good reason. It's a great mixture of indie rock artists (Sheila Nicholls, The Beta Band, and Stereolab) and legendary musicians, including Stevie Wonder, The Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan. Though most of the soundtrack is composed of pop music, there's a nice variety in musical styles.

Iben Hjejle (Laura) and Cusack
#3 - The Cast

This is easily one of John Cusack's best performances. Cusack plays Rob, a record shop owner. His character may be charming, but he's also layered with many unflattering traits. Cusack walks a fine line between being a nearly-faithful boyfriend and loser. He's not exactly a good person but there's an honest effort to do the best he can based on his previous relationships.

Cusack's supporting cast couldn't be more fitting. Rob's two employees, Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso), have just as much passion for music as him, which can be unfortunate for Rob at times since they don't know when to shut up. Rob's girlfriend, Laura (Iben Hjejle) is successful and confident. She's the opposite of Rob, which often creates power struggles between the couple. Hjejle plays Laura with underlying strength. She's not an over-the-top feminist but she's not the weak girlfriend either. For a character like Rob who loves to be the leader, Laura keeps him grounded. Laura's best friend Liz (Joan Cusack), on the other hand, is a bit more fierce. Instead of using reason like Laura, Liz instead prefers anger, be it shouting or passive aggressive behavior.

Even though the film mostly follows Cusack, there are great performances from other smaller roles. At one point in the film Rob lists his top five worst breakups. He later revisits these women, allowing great moments for some great actresses to shine, including Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, and Joelle Carter. Even smaller roles like Tim Robbins' "Ian" character and Lisa Bonet's "Marie De Salle" character are delivered with such great performances that their parts feel bigger than they are. All in all, it's a terrific cast with a nice variety in characters. Oh...and Bruce Springsteen even shows up, briefly, as himself. It's a cool cameo and quite fitting to the story and Cusack's character.

Rob takes grief from Liz (played by Cusack's real-life sister, Joan).
#2 - The Story

High Fidelity disguises itself as a romantic comedy, but at its core it's a story about music and its effect on life. There's even a moment in the film where Cusack's characters asks the audience:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

In relation to the story, that could be the most meaningful statement in the film. Since a very early age, music has been an important factor in my life. And still, I'm not sure I can answer the question either. I know that when I'm down I prefer depressing music, and when I'm happy I choose more upbeat music. But does the sad music make me sadder? Many years ago a coworker told me I should listen to happy music when I'm down, but it never felt right. Could it be that music and feelings are supposed to compliment each other? Whatever the answers are to those questions, Cusack's statement is genius. And if you keep music as a key element to the story while watching High Fidelity, you may find a much deeper meaning to the film.

Another element to the story are the Top 5 lists. Throughout the film, Rob and the gang create situations where a Top 5 list helps illustrate a moment. For example: a Top 5 list of songs to play at a funeral. At first it comes across as a simple conversation between music lovers, but the symbolism these lists create make the scenes even better.

L-R: Alex D├ęsert, John Cusack, Todd Louiso, and Jack Black
#1 - The Authenticity

The characters and their lives are all about music. Whether they're wannabe musicians or wannabe music critics, Rob, Barry, and Dick all share a bit of arrogance. They have no doubt that they're authorities in the field of music, and look down at anyone who isn't as informed as they are. Having worked in film and music industries, I can say first-hand that this is most certainly a realistic depiction of many movie and music buffs.

Unfortunately, I'm also familiar with several of the failed relationships that Rob has had. Those, too, come across as very real. His insecurities, his suspicions, and even his misguided reactions to break-ups all seem legitimate. This was one of the first films where I could relate so closely to the main character's depiction of dating. And I'm sure most of this authenticity is thanks to the film's source material, Nick Hornby's book of the same title. (Hornby also authored "About A Boy" which was later adapted into a film starring Hugh Grant.)

With a film like High Fidelity, it's easy to find reasons to love it. And whether or not you're a music buff, the story speaks to anyone who's dated. Presented in a very original way, Cusack and company produced a fun film with strong performances.

For more information visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0146882

TRIVIA: Nick Hornby's book is set in London, but the producers changed it to Chicago because the area was more familiar to them. John Cusack, an Illinois native, also found it easy to relocate his character in the Chicago area. Additionally, it has been stated that Chicago's alternative music scene can be compared to that of north London's.