Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #283
Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: March 31, 2000
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $47,126,295
Running Time: 113 minutes
Director: Stephen Frears
Producers: Tim Bevan, Steve Pink, Rudd Simmons
Screenplay: D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg
Story: Nick Hornby
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Mick Audsley
Studio: Touchstone Pictures, Working Title Films
Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures
Stars: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black, Todd Louiso, Catherine Zeta Jones, Lili Taylor, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Lisa Bonet, Chris Rehmann, Ben Carr, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Shannon Stillo, Drake Bell, Laura Whyte, Sara Gilbert
The Beta Band “Dry The Rain”
“Now, the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art. Many do’s and don’ts. First of all you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel. This is a delicate thing”
Music is officially the spice of life. It plays such a pivotal role for so many of us; present company inclusive. If I am feeling chipper then a dash of Simple Minds can transport me to my happy place, grouchy then I’ll bust out Slayer’s God Hates Us All long player, and should I be feeling utterly miserable then that’s where Radiohead come in handy. From Tracy Chapman to Public Enemy, it all has the ability to dictate one’s state of mind and there are few mediums which possess that power. It’s the whole reason why audio accompaniment chaperones everything I scribe and without John Carpenter’s synthesized score Halloween becomes merely a film about a lowly mime artist and his adventures in babysitting. It’s also subjective; what would make my heart flutter may well make another’s teeth grind but we all have a childhood and certain tunes just resonate for whatever reason.
“It would be nice to think that since I was 14, times have changed. Relationships have become more sophisticated. Females less cruel. Skins thicker. Instincts more developed. But there seems to be an element of that afternoon in everything that’s happened to me since. All my romantic stories are a scrambled version of that first one”
Nick Hornby is an author for whom I have a whole lot of respect. Plenty of his novels have made the transition from page to screen; Fever Pitch and About A Boy being two examples of his art transformed for the silver screen. However it is High Fidelity which holds a special place in Keeper’s heart and Stephen Frears’ Americanized adaptation is nigh-on perfect. It may have seemed a somewhat risky pursuit to expect the very British humor to translate successfully for a stateside audience but Frears works wonders with the formula and it becomes hard to believe that its main protagonist Rob Gordon was originally intended to be a wide boy from London town. This is largely due to a performance from John Cusack (who also co-writes), which hits the nail on the head so exquisitely that you just want to lean into the screen and give him an almighty hug. I’ve always had a soft spot for Cusack and he has proven himself a rather versatile professional over the years, making a seamless transition from teen hot property to adult star where others faltered. But, of all his numerous roles, it is record store owner Gordon which shows him most in his comfort zone.
“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”
He isn’t all sweetness and light; clad in baggy Cosby sweaters and sporting disheveled hair and an air of the pessimistic, he is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. However, his character is so well written and his imperfections so endearing that we gladly loiter in his vinyl den while he bitches about his inability to fathom the opposite sex. If music forms the backing track for his misadventures, then personal relationships make up the crux; his on-off courtship with long-suffering girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) is drawing to a close and, evidently, Rob is reluctant to place any of the blame for the dissolution of their affiliation on his own doorstep. He has been culpable of emotional neglect and taken her largely for granted, with one foot firmly in bachelorhood and the other refusing to walk towards the inevitable altar. He has reached a crossroads.
“Top five things I miss about Laura. One; sense of humor. Very dry, but it can also be warm and forgiving. And she’s got one of the best all time laughs in the history of all time laughs, she laughs with her entire body. Two; she’s got character. Or at least she had character before the Ian nightmare. She’s loyal and honest, and she doesn’t even take it out on people when she’s having a bad day. That’s character”
As she begins to slip from his grasp and hilariously shacks up with a suitor far less than deserving (Tim Robbins in an inspired cameo), Rob does what he does best, feels sorry for himself and uses music to steer him through any light heartbreak. Doubling up as our narrator, he decides to impart his vast musical knowledge upon the audience and compiles all manner of top fives to showcase his intellectual superiority and infinite understanding of what he believes gives good old rock and roll such fine healing properties. We are expected to suck it all up and do so willingly as his character is displayed with warts and all and doesn’t cry out for sympathy but instead dares us not to feel the slightest bit bad for his plight. Revisiting old flames allows him to learn a little more about why women invariably choose to kick him to the curb and, once again, Hornby’s smart screenplay gives us much to personally identify with.
“I can’t fire them. I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up every day. That was four years ago”
If Rob Gordon represents something of an affable anti-hero then it is only right that he should come with sidekicks and this is another masterstroke by Frears as his casting is utterly faultless. Jack Black and Todd Louiso play Barry and Dick, one part court jester and the other depressive non-entity with all the confidence of a battered bicycle horn. Black is the best he has ever been and steals many of the scenes where he is necessitated to bring it whereas Louiso acts as the perfect downtrodden counter-balance and mopes around dusty vinyl racks, barely being allowed to finish a sentence. The dynamic between the three of them is pitch-perfect and we can identify with all three in turn. Should we not share their idiosyncrasies then, chances are, we will have known somebody just like them growing up and this helps breathe life into their characters. We don’t always like them and their musical bigotry can really grind our gears but it’s totally fruitless attempting not to grow to love them… just a little.
Stevie Wonder “I Believe (When I Fall In Love)”
“She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious, or ill at ease. You know, it sounds boring, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t spectacular either. It was just good. But really good”
A film like High Fidelity would be nothing without something to keep us grounded and Hjejle’s tormented turn as down-on-her-luck Laura ensures that our feet remain firmly rooted to the ground throughout. After numerous disastrous emotionless interludes with past girlfriends (including an insightful turn by Catherine Zeta-Jones as the one girl in high school that everyone stops to listen to even though she has nothing notable to say) he begins to ponder whether home is where the heart is and Frears refuses to steer us towards self-indulgent schmaltz, instead keeping things real while showing us that Rob does indeed possess a heart. It is this balance which is struck consistently throughout and which elevates the film way above the usual anemic fare. Hornby is clearly a reflective soul and there is plenty of his own experience woven into Gordon’s exploits. Had it been anyone other than Cusack playing lead role then I’m unsure as to whether his message would convey so effortlessly and that shows that, while the film adaptation rarely measures up to the novel which inspired it, in the case of High Fidelity it can stand on its own two feet and be counted.
“Rob, I’m telling you this for your own good, that’s the worst fuckin’ sweater I’ve ever seen, that’s a Cosby sweater. A Cosssssssby sweater. Did Laura let you leave the house like that?”
There are instances of sheer hilarity littered throughout and also moments of personal anguish which offset the belly laughs to perfection. Frears’ film knows when to reveal its softer side and doesn’t overdo it when it would be easy to veer towards sentimentality. It is this that sets it apart; we are a more adaptable audience than many film-makers give us credit for and here we are treated with respect as opposed to being taken for fools. Rob isn’t perfect, far from it, he is largely opinionated and occasionally downright cruel. But he is unerringly real; there’s nothing caricature about his characterization and plenty that is infinitely relatable. It matters not which side of the Atlantic Championship Vinyl opens its shutters as the writing is that good that it effortless transcends geographical boundaries. It is, in short, a marvelous enriching experience and one which I implore you to seek out. As for Keeper, well in honor of one of the most multifaceted manchildren ever to be committed to celluloid Rob Gordon, I shall end with a top ten all of my own (five just seems too measly). Consider it a mix tape of sorts and remember our narrator’s wise words as there is a fine art to the compilation of a great mix-tape.
Keeper’s Top Ten Childhood Favorites (Chronological Order)
Blondie “Atomic” (1979)
The Police “Walking on The Moon” (1979)
Japan “Quiet Life” (1979)
Kim Wilde “Kids In America” (1981)
Simple Minds “Theme For Great Cities” (1981)
A Flock of Seagulls “I Ran (So Far Away)” (1981)
Daryl Hall & John Oates “Maneater” (1982)
Billy Idol “White Wedding” (1982)
The Cult “She Sells Sanctuary” (1985)
The Smiths “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” (1987)
Admittedly, that’s just ten reeled straight from the top of my head. There is plenty within my list that is open for debate and admittedly a smattering of guilty pleasure but that is what’s so great about one’s own opinion. It’s mine and I own intellectual properties. If somebody asks me what I think of something then my rejoinder will never be based on their predilection and, if there’s one thing which yanks my chain, it is folk tailoring their standpoint to accommodate specific company. Own that shit, if you consider something precious then don’t change your tune based on somebody else’s ramblings. And if you can relay every single word of When Will I Be Famous? by Bros then don’t beat yourself up over it as you’re never alone. Embrace your inner Rob Gordon and you’ll be just fine.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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