High Fidelity

Peter Bradshaw finds that Nick Hornby's tale of lovelorn blokes and their records makes the journey across the Atlantic well

High Fidelity without the whingeing? It's like Hamlet without the Prince! That is going to be the reaction of many Nick Hornby readers - fans and non-fans alike - to Stephen Frears' screen version of Hornby's modern classic. It is a respectful yet perceptibly upbeat account of this compelling and mawkish novel of male self-pity and self-forgiveness: retaining much of the original text but transferring the action from the gloomy Holloway Road (easily London's most Soviet boulevard) to a bright and sunlit Chicago.

John Cusack is Rob, the owner of Championship Vinyl, which is that most old- fashioned of things, a "record shop" or rather record store. It's where he and his two sad-case employees, Dick and Barry, hang out all the livelong day. Rob has recently been dumped by his girlfriend, Laura. Dick and Barry seem never to have had one. Neither wicked nor virile enough for out-and-out misogyny, the guys retreat into an avoidant world of music snobbery, attacking each others' anally retentive "top five" music lists of all-time highs and lows.

He and his colleagues are strangers to the MP3 player; not for them the illicit delights of napster.com, and even CDs are a bit too fancy and modern. Vinyl is what thirty-something Rob sells, though this doesn't mean any attachment to dance music or clubbing, subjects on which Rob and his fiercely opinionated colleagues are strangely silent. No, it means proper LPs, the shop specialising in blues, country, vintage soul and new wave (though for the film "trip-hop" is unconvincingly added to the list).

Although it is notionally set in the present, High Fidelity gestures backwards 10 or 20 years. One of the best moments is when Dick puts on Stiff Little Fingers' Suspect Device in the store and smiles knowingly when a saucer-eyed customer asks if this is something new by Green Day. (There is even a notice put up in the store appealing for "hip young gunslingers" - a reference, surely, to the legendary job advert placed by the NME in the 70s, which got a reply from youngster Julie Burchill.) All the way through the film, from the opening titles to closing credits, there is a passionate, encyclopaedic love of music, combined with a disconcerting sense that this love is a kind of autism or arrested development, a symptom of some poignant deprivation of real love.

Cusack is a very plausible Rob, hangdog, clever, alienated, mopey and dopey. Involved in this project from the outset, and credited as co-producer and co-writer, Cusack spends much of the time doing speeches direct to camera, talking to us in his lonely apartment, on the way down the stairs, out on the street and all the way up to the shopfront - speeches taken almost word for word from Hornby's book. The fidelity is a bit too high and the stuff to camera is an uneasy, self-conconscious and pedantic gimmick that Stephen Frears could well have done without, and in fact does without as the film progresses and the action complicates, causing a perceptible improvement in lightness and fluency.

The other big departure from realism is Bruce Springsteen making a hefty cameo appearance hanging out in Rob's apartment, giving him advice about life, love and music, like Woody Allen's Bogart. It is a nice touch, but the picture does not handle fantasy sequences particularly convincingly: there is a moment where Rob mentally beats up Laura's unctuous hippyish new boyfriend Ian (Tim Robbins), and the effect is somehow not as funny as it ought to have been - a diversion from the more satisfactory comedy of real life.

Where a film adaptation could ventilate the humid bachelor atmosphere of Hornby's novel is in giving opportunities for women. Iben Hjelje is a very likeable Laura, Nick's nice, accessible and down-to-to-earth girlfriend. And among his exes, Lili Taylor is funny as the neurotic and needy Sarah, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is well cast as Charlie, terrifyingly superior and sexy, yet strangely shallow in her apparent emotional and social invulnerability.

Tellingly though, they are all upstaged 100% of the time by the guys, with whose hurt and pain we are always invited to identify more strongly. That said, Jack Black is excellent as the boorish and pain-free Barry, insensitive and bull-headed to a fault, a man who will not hesitate to ignore or even evict the shop's customers if their tastes don't come up to scratch.

High Fidelity has what Nick Hornby's book has: a stylish and unusual way of making music fanhood give an unexpected glimpse into the male psyche: a getting in touch with, not the feminine side exactly, but the part of the male mind which is concerned with its own desire for emotional literacy. It is still a bit wimpy and sugary, but it's definitely entertaining, and the translation to American accelerates the tempo refreshingly.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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