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A region 2 DVD review of HIGH FIDELITY by Slarek

Taking a well-loved British novel (that is regarded by many as being in part about the experience of living in London) and transposing it to Chicago seems like asking for flack from just about every discerning UK viewer. We've been this way too many times before and the whole idea of "It's a nice story but we'll never sell it with all these Brits in it" has too often turned a great book into a mediocre film, as anyone aghast at how Len Deighton's masterful Bomber was mutated into the horrid Memphis Belle will testify. So here we go again, right?

Well, no, actually. What writers D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, John Cusack and Scott Rosenberg have recognised in Nick Hornby's source material is that many of the things that make the book such a good read have to do with experiences not necessarily localised to one city or even country. Indeed, Cusack related much of what he read to his own youth in Chicago, and they, together with British director Stephen Frears, have used Hornby's source material as a basis for a smart and entertaining character comedy that captures the spirit of the novel and its characters without distilling the importance of the locale – downtown Chicago really does stand in well for London.

Cusack himself plays the central character, Rob, who in the opening scene is dumped by his latest girlfriend, prompting him to draw up a list of top five break-ups from his past and explore just what it is about him that repeatedly sends women scurrying. Compiling Top Five Lists is a serious preoccupation for Rob and his two music geek co-workers – quietly obsessive Dick and the noisily opinionated Barry – at Championships Vinyl, the specialist music store that he manages. Whether it be the top five records to play on a Monday morning or the ideal choice to send off a loved one at their funeral, the lists always provoke arguments, many of which are hilarious, though they do highlight the fact that all of the funniest scenes all seem to involve Jack Black, whose wildly boisterous portrayal of Barry pretty much steals the film. Performances are generally impressive all round, though, with Cusack once again proving an engaging lead and Todd Louiso as Dick doing a very nice line in nervous nerdiness, still making his character sympathetic enough for us to root for him when he starts dating Sara Gilbert's almost equally geeky customer. Only Tim Robbins' cameo as Rob's New Age love rival Ian feels a little uncomfortable, a cartoon character in a film otherwise populated with mild exaggerations.

In a film based around a record store it is appropriate that some of the most effective moments come when the characters let the music speak for them, as when Rob plays the Beta Band's Dry the Rain and stands silently as the tune washes over and seduces the shop's until-then distracted customers. He claims his intention here is to sell copies of the record but he is in truth sharing a passion, allowing the music itself rather than his own opinion of it to communicate what he feels. Of course, Rob retains his position of superiority. "It's good," says one customer. "I know," replies Rob. They both appreciate the music, but Rob found it first.

The filmmakers solve the problem of voicing the thoughts of the lead character – central to the book's structure – through Rob's fourth wall busting complicity with the audience. From the opening scene he addresses us directly, a technique that is used throughout the film and essentially drives the narrative, working well through neat writing and Cusack's confidence as a performer. If there's a down side to this it's that we tend to engage with the characters on an intellectual rather than emotional level, so that we never really suffer with Rob when he is working out his pain, and the cheerier, upbeat moments tend to prompt only a smile rather than a real feeling of relief or joy.

***SPOILER ALERT*** If you haven't seen the film yet and you don't want
me to ruin plot points for you, click here to bypass the next paragraph.

Part of the reason for this, though, is the somewhat conservative turn the film takes in its final act, where the indie sensibilities of the first two-thirds give way to standard Hollywood resolutions – all Rob is really looking for is stability, a successful career and a steady relationship that leads to marriage. More than once he denounces the single life as unacceptable, describing it as a form of slow suicide, a spectacularly narrow view that suggests he really needs to get out and meet a wider range of people or at least deal with his own insecurities. Ironically, the one character who appears happiest with his lot, despite his constant put-downs, is the unattatched Barry, but even he gives in to convention at the end when his band delivers not the death metal ear-bashing that Rob fears but laid back white blues, which since Alan Parker's The Commitments has become the weary standard for middle-aged film characters – and actors who fancy themselves as singers – looking to reinvent themselves as cool. This is all faithful to the spirit of the novel, of course, but takes the edge off an otherwise smart little film, for with conventionality comes predictability and a degree of artificiality, and the very essence of fun these characters represent springs directly from their conflict with each other, their customers and even their would-be girlfriends – strip them of this and we're left with bog standard Hollywood romantic comedy cyphers.

All this aside, much of the film remains very enjoyable and it certainly delivers as an audience picture, especially the brief fantasy sequence in which the three shop workers beat Ian senseless to the accompaniment of loud grunge music, a moment that threw some of our audience off their seats with laughter when we screened this at the cinema.

sound and vision

Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, this is a very pleasing transfer, the colours clear but not over-saturated and the picture sharp without any noticeable edge enhancement. Black levels are spot on and the contrast range is good throughout. A solid transfer.

The 5.1 soundtrack is very good, the many music tracks featured in the film coming across well, with exceptional clarity across the range and solid bass throughout. A good use of rear speakers is made in scenes featuring music, plus the occasional sound effect, such as the overhead train near Rob's apartment. Nice job.

extra features

Though lacking a commentary track, which would have been most welcome here, there are still a couple of very useful extras included.

First up are a collection of 9 deleted scenes. These average between one and four minutes in length and all have been properly edited and scored and are anamorphic 1.85:1 and the same quality as the main feature. A rare thing indeed. Many of them give very useful extra information about the characters, and a commentary or explanation as to why they were dropped (though the usual story of pace and timing are probably to blame) would have been welcome.

The same visual quality is not evident on the theatrical trailer, which is 4:3 and a tad rough, and to be honest not the best sell in the world (though a long way from the worst).

Finally there are a pair of interviews with writer/producer/star John Cusack and director Stephen Frears, shot on video and presented 4:3, with very crisp picture quality. Both are divided into five titled chapters, which vary in length from 1 minute 45 seconds to just over 5 minutes, and are informative and entertaining, adding to our understanding of how the film came about and why key decisions were made. Again, this makes you ache for a full commentary track by the two men, but in lieu of that, this will suffice.

Though not strictly a disk extra per se, the included disk sleeve notes are rather good, giving a little detail about the production and the key personnel involved. This is the sort of thing usually found on the DVD under Biographies and Background.


High Fidelity runs on energy and intelligence and is fun pretty much throughout, and though a commentary track would be welcome here, this is still a decent disk. The transfer is fine, and the deleted scenes and interviews really add to the viewing experience. Essentially this is a smartly scripted feel-good movie: relationships are amusingly examined, and if the conclusions are, for me at least, disappointingly traditionalist, the journey there is still worth taking.

High Fidelity

USA/UK 2000
109 mins
Stephen Frears
John Cusack
Iben Hjejle
Jack Black
Todd Louiso
Lisa Bonnet
Catherine Zeta-Jones
Sara Gilbert
Joan Cusack
Tim Robbins

DVD details
region 2
1.85:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
English for the hard of hearing
Deleted scenes
Interviews with John Cusack and Stephen Frears
Buena Vista
release date
Out now
review posted
28 November 2003

See all of Slarek's reviews