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Unearthing homo musicanus



High Fidelity (R)
Touchstone Pictures

I have a weak spot for musicians. From the ages of about 15 to 30, I dated a whole passel of them, and when I couldn't find a musician, I did the next best thing -- I dated homo musicanus. This particular subset of humanity is always male, has more records than hair follicles and rarely reproduces as he is known to spend so long selecting the perfect music for a romantic evening that the mood has long passed by the time he makes it back to the couch.

If anthropologists haven't faithfully described homo musicanus, the movie High Fidelity sure has. High Fidelity is based on the 1996 novel of the same name by Nick Hornby that follows Rob (John Cusack), a thirty-something owner of a record store whose primary passion is music. Rob spends part of every day constructing "top five" lists -- top five side-one-track-one-songs, top five songs about death, etc.

As the film begins, Rob's lovely girlfriend Laura (Iben Hjejle) has just left their apartment for good, and Rob covers his hurt by informing her that this breakup doesn't even make the list of his top five breakups. But then he thinks about those top five and worries that maybe he is doomed to be broken up with forever. This spurs a small and delightful odyssey to find his former girlfriends and find out what went wrong.

High Fidelity is blessed with the great combination of subtle screenwriting and strong performances by a whole cast of characters, most of whom will be familiar if you're between the ages of 27 and 40. To begin with, John Cusack as Rob is funny, self-deprecating, immature but loveable. By having Rob talk directly to the camera, the writers effectively translated the sensibility of the novel to the screen. Often this kind of trick doesn't work, but in High Fidelity, Cusack pulls it off beautifully. With such a strong and subtle script, Cusack is able to easily uncover the real message of the film -- this obsession with music is an excuse not to grow up and deal with the complex emotional life that accompanies maturity.

Meanwhile Danish actress Hjejle, who plays Laura, delivers an understated performance as the girlfriend who has grown up while her boyfriend has not. She has this terrific blonde hair that she pins up, lets fall down and swings around, somehow reinforcing whatever she's doing. I've never paid much attention to the hairdressers when the credits roll, but I promise to in the future.

The two guys who work in Rob's record store demonstrate other sides of homo musicanus: Dick (Todd Louiso) is the arrogant bastard who will fight you tooth and nail over whether a song title begins with "the," while his counterpart is the insanely shy Barry, beautifully rendered by Jack Black. While I wouldn't want to discover either in a record store (they probably would refuse to sell me a Captain Beefheart LP since I can't quote the liner notes), I could watch them on the screen all day.

Two other aspects of the film are well worth noting as well. First, are the sets. In particular, Rob's cramped bachelor pad lined with shelf after shelf of albums lovingly encased in plastic sleeves gives visual weight to his aural obsession. One of my favorite scenes is when Rob decides to reorganize his record collection to keep his mind off of Laura. Barry visits and asks him what order he's going to follow. "Not alphabetical, I hope," Barry says. Nope. Rob is organizing them autobiographically, placing all the albums that he learned about in seventh grade on the same shelf, etc. "Wow," responds Barry, with real admiration in his voice. That is the real challenge of a musical lifetime.

Then, of course, there is the music itself, which ranges from Peter Frampton to Green Day. There's so much music -- played in Rob's apartment, in the record store, in the clubs that he frequents -- that the music credits rolled forever at the end of the film. Appropriately, there are some old favorites, some terrible stuff and some things I wouldn't mind hearing again. I may just buy the soundtrack to keep track of who played what.

Of course, if I do that, I'll probably have to go figure out where it can fit among the many CD's and LP's organized by my husband. There's some rhyme or reason to it, I just haven't figured it out yet, and he's not telling. That's what you get when you marry a musician, I guess.

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