Behind the music: High Fidelity stars look back on the cult-classic film 20 years later
It may have been only a modest box office hit, but High Fidelity, with its wry humor and endless top 5 lists, keenly captured the zeitgeist of an era — turning Nick Hornby's 1995 novel about a lovelorn London record store owner into a quintessentially American film starring John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins, Lisa Bonet, and a then little-known musician and actor named Jack Black, among others.
Twenty years on, the cast — including Cusack, now 53, whose music obsessive Rob Gordon became an icon of damaged Gen-X romanticism — looks back at a modern cult classic.
JOHN CUSACK (co-writer and star): “I had worked with [then Disney studio head] Joe Roth and [music supervisor] Kathy Nelson on Grosse Point Blank. We were all friends, and we had just put together a pretty serious soundtrack for Grosse Point so we’d sort of been through that process before. They said, "You know, we own this property, High Fidelity," and Kathy said, “Why don’t you get Johnny to write it?”
So I read the book and I immediately thought, “Yeah, I could set it in Chicago.” I knew the record stores and I knew the exact scene from growing up — except in the book the Brits were more interested in R&B and soul music like James Carr, Wilson Pickett, the Muscle Shoals sound. And my generation, we loved all that music too, but we were very obsessed with like, the British punk new wave sounds, right? We wanted to listen to the Bowie records or read the liner notes on the Gang of Four, the Jam, the Clash, and all that.
But once you sort of switched those around and took away the British accents, they were the same. So then I wrote the script with a couple of partners and supervised it and then we got a green light. We offered it to Stephen Frears, and he said he wanted to do it. I knew Stephen from before, he had offered me The Grifters, so then I got to repay the favor.
IBEN HJEJLE (who played Rob's main love interest, Laura): I was in a Dogme movie called Mifune that had been in the Berlin [Film Festival] competition and later on when we were at a party, the director and I, we spot Stephen Frears from the other side of the room and I say, “Oh my goodness, that’s Stephen Frears! And he directed the best movie in the world, Dangerous Liaisons.” So we went over and talked to him for like five minutes, and all of a sudden he turns to me and says, “Do you think you can act in English, with an American accent?”
You know, this evening involved a lot of alcohol and everyone was in a very festive mood and so I said, “Of course I can!” Someone wrote my number on the back of a matchbox and gave it to Stephen because that’s how it worked in those days. So my [now] ex-husband and I went back to Copenhagen and went, “Okay, that was a great story, and we’re probably never going to hear anything again,” and then a week went by and Stephen called me and said, “Please can I send you the script and the book, and is it alright if John Cusack calls you and talks to you?”
CUSACK: Stephen called me up in the middle of the night and said, “I found Laura and she’s in Denmark!” I said, “What?" He said, “Look at this film Mifune,” and I did, and I could see it right away.
HJEJLE: We had a lovely conversation and he said, “I’d love to come and meet you.” I knew he was like one of those what do you call it, teenage heartthrobs? And I loved Say Anything, which I thought was wonderful, and he was gorgeous. But the terrible thing is, I said, “Are you the guy from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?" And he said, “Oh, please don’t worry, I’ve had that happen to me so many times.” He was so nice about it. [Laughs]
CUSACK: She was a remarkable actress, and I just knew she would be the perfect person because you need someone whose bullshit detector would look right through the idiocy of Rob, where she wouldn’t have to say anything — like you just knew she already knew all of his moves, all of his tricks.
HJEJLE: My son was only a tiny baby at the time so I couldn’t really travel, not even to London, so John and Stephen Frears and the lovely casting person came to Copenhagen and we worked for a couple of hours and they flew back and they called me and said, “You've got the part if you want it.”
CUSACK: Working Title came up with the idea for casting Catherine Zeta-Jones [as one of the top-five exes] — I want to give them credit for that. But the rest of it was all us. I’d worked with Lili [Taylor] a bunch and we knew each other for ages growing up in Chicago, we’d worked together on Say Anything, so that was no problem. And then Lisa [Bonet] was there for a couple of weeks, and she’s so magnificent in it.
TODD LOUISO (who played the famously beta record-store clerk Dick, foil to Jack Black's Barry): When I read the script I was just like, “Oh my God, this part’s totally for me." They offered it to David Arquette first and he passed on it, so I owe it all to David Arquette. [Laughs] But that’s usually the case with any break as an actor — somebody’s passed, someone who’s a name.
CUSACK: I knew that Jack [Black] would be my secret weapon. He had made a movie with Tim Robbins and there was sort of this actors' gang, a crew that Jack was hanging out with, and he was also doing Tenacious D late-night shows and stuff, so I knew the secret that he was a great musician and a great comedian and just hadn’t gotten a role like High Fidelity yet.
HIGH ON THE JOB
HJEJLE: We got it all shot in eight weeks in Chicago. I’d never been to America, and I’d never ever imagined that I would be going there on my first big film job. My baby came with me, and now that baby is 22 years old and a musician in his own right, signed with Sony, so something must have slipped through. [Laughs]
LOUISO: We didn’t really do any rehearsals, so I just met Jack when we got to Chicago and it was great. We became really fast friends, and what was amazing was that we really got taken under the wing of the music scene there.
HJEJLE: I don’t know if "shy" is the right word, but Jack was actually kind of very quiet. He would say little dry things now and then, but he wasn’t that talkative. Todd was! And John, of course, so it’s actually quite funny when you see Jack Black today. He was very sweet and very nice, but quiet.
LOUISO: It was hard not to laugh whenever Jack would yell [during scenes] because you knew it was just all hot air.
HJEJLE: Laura’s character, she’s a lawyer but she meets Rob at a club and I think in the book she’s DJing a bit as well? But anyway, she’s very into music and the whole clubbing scene — she’s sort of that cool ‘90s chick, but she has a grown-up life as well, or what would be characterized at that time as a grown-up life. Not wearing her hair pink to work anymore, you know. [Laughs]
LOUISO: The record store was built on a stage so you’re still on a movie lot for all that, and so was John’s apartment. There were a couple of bars we had to shoot in, but yeah, mainly we were indoors.
CUSACK: That scene with Liz in the record store? I thought, I can just tell my sister [Joan Cusack], “Okay just walk in, call me a f---in’ asshole, and leave.” Yeah, I knew that would be a fine idea. [Laughs]
HJEJLE: I think they gave me some of the costumes because I liked them so much. They were really sweet, they had a little package for me when I had to go back to Denmark, and I remember some red pants that I really liked — I think Betsey Johnson was the designer? I held onto those for years.
LIVING THE DREAM(S)
HJEJLE: Well, there was a bit of nudity — the dream sequence that Rob has about Laura and Tim Robbins, that was hilarious because I had been so nervous about shooting that scene. And Tim shows up and, of course, is the coolest person on the planet and is like, “I know they set the whole day to do this, but I have a baseball game in a couple of hours with my kids so that's what we’re gonna do." And I was like, “Thank you, sir.” [Laughs]
It was actually only the camera person and Stephen and then the makeup and costume ladies on set for that, because Stephen said, "I need you ladies to tell me what you think what's fun and sexy — and also, you have to imagine that this is all in the head of some other dude."
And we had so much fun! We were giggling all the way through it. It’s almost never like that in a sex scene.
LOUISO: That part [where the guys beat up Rob’s ponytailed love rival, played by Robbins] we almost didn’t shoot, because we were running out of time for the day. But John, Jack, and I were really fighting for it. I’m really happy that it didn’t get cut. And Tim was the one who came up with his teeth flying out. I don’t know what they were, probably Chiclets? Just grab some candy from a craft services table. [Laughs]
BEHIND THE MUSIC
CUSACK: We’d gotten Bob Dylan to give us “Most of the Time,” which I think we used really beautifully. [The Bruce Springsteen cameo], I was lucky enough to be friendly with him, so I called him up and said, “Do you want to be in this movie that is a love letter to music, and you’ll be you, talking to me in my head?” And he just paused and laughed and went, “Yeah, sounds good.” [Laughs]
HJEJLE: I actually went out one night in Chicago to see Tenacious D because John said, “You have to,” so we went to the Chicago House of Blues and I loved it. It is my kind of humor, and we’ve seen all the movies, we’ve seen The Pick of Destiny. But I guess Jack doesn’t know, because we haven’t talked for 20 years! [Laughs]
CUSACK: The ending is Barry singing “Let’s Get It On” — or it might have been different in the book, it might have been “Sexual Healing”? We shot both of them, and then ended up using “Let’s Get It On,” which seemed much more celebratory and climactic. So I knew we had the ending, and I knew he was the perfect guy for it.
LOUISO: This guy Dan Karetsky who founded the record label Drag City, he really, really helped a lot with the soundtrack of the film, and he has all these really amazing artists on his label. Jack and I just followed him around to whatever shows were going on, so we got to sort of become immersed in this indie-rock world. It was the end of the '90s before 9/11, all kind of blissful ignorance, and we were in this amazing bubble of independent music, just going to parties and bars and seeing all these amazing bands.
HJEJLE: Some of the more obscure bands I would have to look into or just ask about. I don’t remember what you did when you couldn’t Google? [Laughs] I guess I talked to John a lot, because he had such extensive knowledge.
CUSACK: The one thing we couldn’t get...when Rob finally proposes to Laura, I wanted “I’m So Tired” by John Lennon. It was absolutely perfect for the scene, but that was one we just couldn’t crack, and I remember after maybe the 80th time, Kathy [Nelson] went, “Gotta move on, gotta find another song.” But man, we really tried.
CUSACK: In the end yeah, I think Rob ends up with Laura. He has his final temptation, you know, like the grass is gonna be greener, with him doing the same behaviors again. And then he finally realizes that those are all phantoms in his head and that the woman he wants is right in front of him.
HJEJLE: I knew tons of guys like Rob, where it was ages before they understood that relationships and committing and having kids is a good thing, and it doesn’t mean that you have to lose yourself or who you are or what you like to do.
Rob is just the sort of character I would fall for, and to me he symbolizes a whole generation, at least here in Denmark, of "What matters is not what you’re like, but what you like." I still love that line.”
CUSACK: Part of the film that makes it good is that it relentlessly admits how human and flawed the characters are, but it doesn’t ask you to forgive them or excuse their behavior. It’s more just like, “This is how life is, this is how much people f--- up. This is the neuroses and craziness inside of our heads.”
HJEJLE: It’s become kind of a cult thing. I’ve gotten so many letters and emails from both men and women saying, “Oh, this is our first date film, we loved it so much!" Or “This movie made me think, ‘Okay, if she can live with that then I can too, and so I said yes when he proposed and now we’re going on 20 years.”
LOUISO: You read certain scripts and you’re like, “This is gonna be incredible." Like when I read the script for Jerry Maguire or auditioned for the Big Lebowski, there are movies where you’re just like, "Yes." And with High Fidelity it felt like it was sort of a Gen-X moment.
CUSACK: My movies — at least the ones where I’ve been involved in producing or writing or cocreating it — a lot of times they don’t get seen or loved right away when they come out, so that’s pretty common. [But] I am proud of it. I put an enormous amount of effort and care into the film.
HJEJLE: We did one or two press junkets in New York and Los Angeles, and that was strange and stressful and I’m still sometimes embarrassed because I had never then and have not ever since been part of such a massive promotion.
A lot of journalists were saying to me, “Of course you’re going to move to Los Angeles now and do lots of movies in America,” but I never had that ambition so it was quite confusing to me, the assumption. I understand today! Denmark is a country of what, 6 million people? So when I see some of those interviews I think, "You ungrateful little twat." [Laughs] But my son was very young and I wanted him to grow up in Denmark with his family and all of that.
LOUISO: Do I still get recognized for Dick? Yeah, all the time! It’s usually just pointing, but it’s always nice when people come up to me. I love the film. Just to know that people still watch it and still love it makes me feel great. And the time that I had there in Chicago with John and Jack and those guys, it’s really fantastic.
HJEJLE: I do see High Fidelity as a crown jewel in my career and I’m very, very proud of it. But I have no regrets that I should have made the jump and moved to America and made my life there.
CUSACK: I haven’t seen the new
series, but I think the gender change is actually very cool. I mean, why not? Anyone is still gonna have the same relationship to pop culture, to music and movies and literature, and they’re still gonna have the same inner monologues.
Ms. Zoe Kravitz seems to be a lovely, smart, charismatic performer, and I really admire and respect her parents a lot, so that part of it I think is really cool. But I would just say, you better get the music right. [Laughs] You gotta get it right.