Speaking as a rock critic who’s spent 20-plus years cracking doofy rock-critic jokes (this one is still my favorite), I regret to inform you that there is only one actually funny rock-critic joke in history, and it appeared in the 2000 John Cusack rom-com High Fidelity. Cusack plays Rob, a semi-charming 30-something schlub who owns a Chicago record store and is either unlucky in love or an unredeemable jerkoff, or both. He is redeemed, somewhat, by the “I will now sell five copies of The 3 E.P.s by the Beta Band” scene, in which he says that, and then does it.
“Who is that?” “The Beta Band.” “It’s good!” “I know.” Incredible. You’ve likely spent 20-plus years now hearing about the dark art of Music Discovery, its preciousness and vitality, not to mention its slow-motion handoff from unsmiling jerkoff record-store clerks (and rock critics) to unfeeling (but far less doofy and pedantic) algorithms. High Fidelity offered a hilariously grim dramatization of how Music Discovery actually works, and how utterly ridiculous human beings look while doing the discovering. (See also That Scene in Garden State, which is somehow not played as comedy.)
The good news about Hulu’s rebooted High Fidelity series—out Friday, with Zoë Kravitz in the Rob(in) role and the record store transplanted to frosé-and-selfie-driven gentrified Brooklyn—is that it features a legit candidate for the second actually funny rock-critic joke in history. Rob runs the record store (vinyl and cassettes only) with two pals, the gentle Simon (David H. Holmes) and the brash Cherise (Dolemite Is My Name’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who banter as follows:
Simon: “Hey, you guys wanna go see Hot Chip DJ? I’m about to get the location.”
Cherise: “Yeah, we know the location: 2007. The fuck?”
Outstanding. “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” opined the original Rob—a Londoner, and even more of an unredeemable jerkoff. He was explaining the outsized romantic importance of one’s record collection in the original High Fidelity, English writer Nick Hornby’s debut 1995 novel that kicked off his long, enviable career shrewdly evoking the inner lives of various semi-charming man-children. I really dug him, when I first discovered him. I can’t imagine why.
Future Hornby book-to-movie excursions would include About a Boy (Hugh Grant as extra-narcissistic man-child) and Fever Pitch (Jimmy Fallon as Red Sox–obsessed man-child), culminating in the 2009 novel and 2018 film Juliet, Naked, in which Rose Byrne ditches a man-child (Chris O’Dowd) in favor of the obscure ’90s alt-rock star (and reformed man-child) whom the ditched man-child is obsessed with (Ethan Hawke). I am still working out whether that counts as progress: for Byrne, for Hornby, for anybody. But this new Hulu series definitely counts as progress in that it lets a woman be the man-child for a change.
High Fidelity’s 25-year book-to-movie-to-Hulu translation (a Broadway adaptation also materialized in 2006) left Hornby’s pop-music-obsessed “You are what you like” thesis, not to mention large chunks of his dialogue and his basic cringe-comic plot, remarkably intact. Rob owns an underperforming record store with two employees, one gentle, one brash. Rob is in the midst of a breakup (though a year has passed in the Hulu version) that is undoubtedly Rob’s fault. Rob resolves to hunt down the exes responsible for “My desert-island, all-time, top-five most memorable split-ups,” to quote both the novel’s and basically the show’s opening words, to find out why all Rob’s relationships end in disaster and heartbreak. (It’s because Rob’s a man-child.) Rob wises up, eventually, maybe. It’s simple, it’s durable, it’s basically To All the Girls (and/or Boys) I’ve Screwed Over Before.
That’s a lot of Robs, yes, sorry. (The unfortunate young woman I was dating in the early 2000s once compared me to John Cusack in High Fidelity, and I’d rather not tell you how many years passed before I realized this was not a compliment, but it was years, plural.) Cusack, an established heartthrob adept at cosplaying as a schlub or vice versa—with, in this instance, a distinct cuddly-moping “pre-swole Trent Reznor” energy—is the ideal vehicle for Hornby’s hapless-dumbass dialogue, expertly toeing the line between adorable and pathetic as he screams, “If you really wanted to mess me up, you should’ve got to me earlier!” out his window as an unfortunate young woman loads her shit into her car. With the exception of exactly one scene, there is nothing further in the book that’s at all missed in the movie (which Cusack cowrote with three other dudes); crucially, the movie also adds the Beta Band joke and, in his breakout role, Jack Black as Barry (the brash record-store buddy), who steals the movie by doing this, and this, and especially this.
Two decades on, Movie Rob has aged quite poorly: His childish narcissism and teenage lechery (the tale of Penny Hardwick, his no. 2 most memorable heartbreak, is not a pleasant one) and rampant self-pity make him ripe for cancellation. (“High Fidelity Created a Hero for a Generation of Sociopathic ‘Nice Guys,’” ran a 2018 Noisey headline.) To cast Zoë Kravitz (daughter of Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet, the latter of whom played a spacey Movie Rob love interest) as TV Rob solves more problems than it creates. She’s childish but not toxically so, self-pitying but not disastrously so, redeemable without overselling it and funny without overdoing it. It’s much funnier when she yells, “You fucking bitch, let’s work it out!” at the rain-soaked window of a recent ex, is what I’m saying; it’s a relief and a delight to watch Kravitz hesitantly sip but then grudgingly enjoy a frosé (“It’s fuckin’ delicious”), especially after she was forced to mope through all of Season 2 of Big Little Lies.
Hulu’s High Fidelity is less whimsical and more ruminative than its predecessors, slower and quieter, gently running the Gen X self-regard at its core through the punishing filter of HBO’s Girls: the utopia-dystopia binary of modern New York City and its $8-coffee joints, the lethal awkwardness always quick to undercut the sexiness, the smartphone as a tool of Satan or at least late capitalism, the reality that owning a record store in 2020 is a sort of death sentence. “Half of the neighborhood thinks we’re washed-up relics, the other half thinks we’re nostalgic hipsters,” is how this new Rob puts it. “They’re both kinda right.” She spends a lot of the series obsessing over the perfect running order for a Spotify playlist, which is bizarre on its face, but it underscores the reality that the quarter-century time jump from novel to TV show is more jarring—given advances in the music industry—than the gender swap.
Created by Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka, with a pilot directed by Girls (and Juliet, Naked) alumnus Jesse Peretz, the brisk series (10 half-hour-or-so episodes) ditches the troublesome “revisit my top-five heartbreaks” framework quickly and lets Kravitz just vibe, calmly but thoroughly, with whoever’s in front of her. This crew includes her exasperated most recent ex Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), and the foxy Scottish singer-songwriter updating the Lisa Bonet role (Thomas Doherty), and the half-schlub/half-stud new love interest named Clyde (Jake Lacy) who she spends much of the first five episodes abusing. (Lacy starred opposite Jenny Slate in 2014’s great Obvious Child and clearly excels at absorbing abuse from whimsical 21st-century rom-com heroines.) High Fidelity works far better as light Valentine’s Day programming than as deep-thought sociology; the whole point of this enterprise is that people who take pop culture too seriously are terrible humans doomed to ridicule and despair.
The show’s updates to the book/movie formula, then, are pointed and appealingly odd: a breezy Jack Black riff about refusing to sell a lame dad a lousy Stevie Wonder single is now a heated argument about the ethics of selling Michael Jackson or Kanye West records, and Kravitz-as-Rob now proves her rock-obsessive cred to incredulous men by rhapsodizing at length about Rumours or a Wings live album. (The movie’s fabled Bruce Springsteen scene also gets an update.) The best moment in the pilot, by far, is the way a 12-year-old Rob (played by Yuri Stevens) delivers the line, “Weezer.” I am serious. (She’s reading Breakfast of Champions and wearing headphones, and a cute boy asks her what she’s listening to; “I lied,” a grown-up Rob informs us. “It was Frank Zappa. All white guys love Weezer.”) The show goes easy on the new gender and racial dynamics at play here, which makes those fleeting moments sharper: “It’s so badass for you to not only occupy but frickin’ own such a historically masculine space,” a ditzy Instagram influencer (Chloe Fineman!) informs Rob of her record store, in the midst of a hellish dinner party. It’s not that deep, usually. This is very much for the best.
Episode 5 is the key for cross-media High Fidelity scholars. The only crucial book scene missing from the movie—they filmed it, but cut it—is when Rob gets a call from a furious jilted wife who wants to sell her no-good philandering husband’s pristine and ultra-rare record collection for an offensively low sum, as revenge. (Twenty bucks, in the show, and the furious jilted wife is well cast.) It’s the score of Rob’s—any Rob’s—life, but every Rob must conclude that it’s a moral offense to deprive even a manifestly bad person of his (or her!) record collection under false pretenses. To the extent that any version of High Fidelity puts on airs long enough to have an ethos, well, there you go.
The Hulu version devotes a whole episode to this conundrum, and throws Clyde in the mix for the awkward-romance overtones, and crucially forces us to spend a few minutes with the no-good philandering husband himself (also well cast), which in turn challenges Rob to figure out the difference between her and him, if there even is one. It’s just now occurring to me that Cusack should’ve played the husband. Oh, well. You still walk away with the sense of High Fidelity as a justifiably living document, as a series of reboots and remakes in legitimately jarring and fascinating conversation with one another, as the ongoing chronicle of an awful person’s rebirth as a (theoretically) tolerable one. It’s a disastrous thing, to devote one’s life to record collector–type miserabilia. It’s worth interrogating why so many Robs still do it anyway. We have our reasons, I guess. The music formats and the politics change. But the Beta Band is forever.