Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Movie Night: High Fidelity

"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?"

So begins High Fidelity, one of the greatest movies ever made about being a lover of music as well as a sexually frustrated young man. It's based on Nick Hornby's book, from whence I assume most of this amazing dialogue came -- although the movie has the advantage of being able to actually use music. Just look at that quote there. That's my life, and the lives of thousands of young men and women who go through life with their headphones clamped on, miserably longing for each other. You could write an essay about that quote. John Cusack's character, Record Shop owner Rob Gordon, muses to the audience as his girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) walks out. The song he picks to console himself is The 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me," a particularly venomous piece of garage rock from the psychedelic era. This immediately stablishes two facts: That he is a connoisseur, and that he is lying to himself.

Rob immediately makes a list of his top 5 all-time greatest breakups (in chronological order) and deliberately leaves Laura off, though it becomes clear she deserves a spot. Rob makes a lot of lists. He and his employees have that obsessive need to rank and categorize everything, especially pop culture, to prove their expertise and their refined taste. Jack Black, as Barry, mocks Rob for including mostly old standbys on his list of Top 5 opening tracks (Nirvana, Marvin Gaye, Velvet Underground: "How about The Beatles? Or fucking Beethoven?") They're elitists, albeit not snobs per se -- Barry extols the virtues of Katrina and the Waves for his mix of Monday mornings songs, and that's as pop as it gets. It's just that you have to be well-versed and able to deploy that knowledge at a moment's notice. Sometimes I flatter myself that I'm okay at talking about music, but I'd make it about five minutes with these guys before we all realized they hated me and I hated them.

But this is an amazing film, which ties that punctilious itemization and exclusion to the need for personal growth. Their shells show signs of fracture early in the film when they see Marie de Salle (Lisa Bonet) performing "Baby, I Love Your Way." It's exactly the kind of well-worn popular tune that Rob, Barry and Dick would despise, but that really does have an emotional truth to it, and only requires a fresh take to remind you why it reached pop greatness. In this moment, music is not about the narratives we create, of reputation or cache value, but it's about the raw in-the-moment feeling that reminds us why we began to obsess over pop music in the first place.

That said, when not berating middle-aged square guys for seeking copies of "I Just Called To Say I Love You," they put their knowledge to good use, enlightening and guiding the masses. This movie contains one of my all-time favourite scenes in any movie, where the three are hard at work: in some ways obnoxiously, but effectively. What gets me is the sureness in Rob's voice when he says "I will now sell five copies of The The EP's by the Beta Band."

"Do it."

I have been lucky enough, in my time working music retail, to have a couple of moments like this. I have a few regular customers who will take my recommendations, but on the rare times when I've been able to select the music for my store, I have been able to catch someone's ear with something they maybe wouldn't have heard otherwise. And the Beta Band is such a great choice for this side, because their sound comes so far out of nowhere, yet seems to elementally pure, with that rhythm and vibe, you can't help but want to know more about this mysterious, powerful sound.

No great movie about music can end without a bit final performance, and in this case it comes courtesy of Barry's band Sonic Death Monkey/Kathleen Turner Overdrive/Barry and the Uptown Five who, despite Rob's fears,give a spirited and full-bodied performance of "Let's Get It On" (Marvin Gaye's name comes up numerous times throughout the film.)

This is at the record release party for the single Rob has produced, marking the point at which the "professional appreciator" finally adds something to the world, something we all secretly long to do. It goes hand in hand with his gradual growth as a person - the last we see from Rob, he's making a mixtape for Laura, featuring, get this, stuff she likes. There are more important things than pushing your particular canon of music on others: there is taste, there is preference, there is mood and temperament that other people have that you might not share, and that's... that's okay. Mostly, it's about learning to love, really love instead of judging and particularizing and obsessing over minutiae. D'aww.

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