For a long time, I proclaimed “High Fidelity,” the 2000 John Cusack-starring adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel, my favorite film. The story of a music-obsessed, list-making record store owner recounting his top five heartaches spoke to me when I first saw it at 17. The film is still in my top five.
I felt a kinship with protagonist Rob Gordon. I recognized myself in his encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, his pursuit of the perfect mixtape and his failures in love. Until I met the woman who would be my wife, I watched “High Fidelity” every Valentine’s Day. It offered me solace. Rob eventually figured it out, and so would I.
In truth, Rob was probably not the best role model. He’s a bit of a self-absorbed, over-opinionated jerk. Of course, part of his arc as a character is learning to curb his worst tendencies. That we like Rob at all is a credit to Cusack’s charisma.
When it was announced that Disney+ was developing a gender-reversed remake of “High Fidelity’’ as a 10-episode TV series, I was cautiously optimistic, especially when the final product wound up on Hulu where it wouldn’t be a Disney-fied incarnation of the story.
Not only is there a gender swap, but much of the cast has been switched from white to black. In addition, Rob (now Robyn Brooks and played by Zoe Kravitz) is bisexual, and Simon (David H. Holmes), one of Rob’s co-workers at her record store Championship Vinyl, is gay.
A lot of films and TV series have taken this more inclusive approach in remaking or a sequelizing a familiar property, and it doesn’t always work out. “High Fidelity” should be used as a template on how to do it right.
The gender, race and sexuality of the characters is never called attention to in an unnecessary or heavy-handed manner. It is simply a part of their identity. Also the gender, race and sexuality of the characters isn’t intrinsic to the story, which deals with the universal trials and tribulations of dating and relationships.
As with its predecessors, the series, developed by Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West, opens with Rob being left by her current boyfriend (Kingsley Ben-Adir), which causes her to spiral into an existential depression and exploration of why she is “doomed to be left.”
When “High Fidelity” was first made, vinyl had become a niche commodity. In the intervening 20 years, there’s been a return in popularity of records, so this is actually the right time to revisit a story largely set in a record store.
Mixtapes, a key component of “High Fidelity,” have been updated to Spotify playlists. As someone who has made his fair share of mixtapes and CDs, this is an accurate update.
Another clever update has one of Rob’s exes (Ivanna Sakhno) transformed from a pseudo-intellectual in the book and film to an Instagram influencer. That’s perfect.
Simon (the introverted Dick in the book and film) has been changed to be one of Rob’s exes. This gives their character dynamic a different flavor and fleshes out a character that was previously drawn in broad strokes. There’s even an episode from Simon’s perspective with him recounting his top five heartbreaks.
In a departure from the source material, Rob is given a new love interest in the form of earnest, nice guy Clyde (Jake Lacy). She refuses to take him seriously because he’s a Phish fan. The addition of this character allows for the series to follow a different trajectory.
The series shifts the action to New York, whereas the film was set in Chicago and the novel in London. Each new city adds a different personality and vitality to the story. Maybe at some point we’ll get a Bollywood take on Hornby’s novel.
As someone who knows the film by heart, it was fun to see the familiar dialogue re-contextualized or remixed. The various top five lists and music debates have been changed, which keeps the material fresh.
There’s a great episode taken directly from the book in which Rob visits a woman (a terrifically funny Parker Posey) who is selling her cheating husband’s impressive record collection for $20. A version of this was shot for the film but left on the cutting-room floor.
The other major character is Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who works with Rob at Championship Vinyl. Cherise is the show’s version of the loud, obnoxious Barry, who was played by Jack Black in the film in his breakout performance.
Randolph wisely doesn’t try to match Black’s energy or performance. Cherise is still a loudmouth, but in many ways she’s a softer version of Barry. Both incarnations of the character have aspirations of forming a band, but Cherise’s bravado masks her insecurities. Randolph finds the humanity of the character.
At the center of it all is Kravitz’ fourth-wall-breaking lead performance. Kravitz, whose mother Lisa Bonet appeared in the film, manages to make a potentially unlikable character charming and engaging. She has an easy-going candor that makes the to-the-camera monologues work, and she makes Rob sympathetic in the more dramatic moments.
All in all, fans and the uninitiated alike will find a lot to enjoy in this new version of “High Fidelity.” There’s definitely enough new here to justify this remake.
While the series works as a self-contained one-season wonder, there’s room to further explore these characters in a second season. Here’s hoping we get it.