How Hulu’s High Fidelity uses the narrative of a soundtrack to tell individual and collective storie
“Making a playlist is a delicate art. It's like writing a love letter but better in a way. You get to say what you want to say without actually saying it.”
I was drawn to the 12 episode series, High Fidelity, for a plethora of reasons. I’d never seen nor read the original versions of the story (the novel by Nick Hornby or the 2000 film) but I had seen stills of Zoe Kravitz in the show, on instagram, and that was definitely a selling point; a witty, slightly androgynous, beautiful and talented woman? Sign me up. I then found out the show was a combination of good music and tales of dating and woe; instantly I knew it was for me. It follows the story of Rob, who speaks to us through a broken fourth wall about her life in Brooklyn; specifically, how a year prior, her engagement fell apart. In an attempt to find out why her ‘Top 5 heartbreaks’ happened, she confronts each person, and we are immersed into a dissection of the human heart and millennial behaviour - with a very nice focus on same-sex as well as heterosexual experiences, I might add! With a melting pot of comedy, mixtapes, heartfelt moments and a very nice dash of debauchery, we’re invited into Rob’s world.
It is the progression of Rob’s journey to find the route of her hamartia in dating that renders her believable. We are introduced to her as someone whom we may envy; a woman who looks like Zoe Kravitz, has a killer wardrobe and record collection which she keeps in her expertly messy but inviting flat, who navigates New York with hedonism and her best friends. However, as she moves through the series, we begin to see how Rob picks herself apart, and also how others identify her less desirable traits. We therefore gradually see a full picture of a character and realise there are parts of her we don’t envy; she isn’t villainized, she is merely normalised. The transformation of the original Rob into a woman was an interesting and potentially risky choice, which I definitely feel paid off, and didn’t feel like tokenism. Rob’s character is complex and realistic. She has interests and traits which are both, and neither, masculine nor feminine and so she doesn’t fit any film stereotypes exactly. Rather than being for the sake of feminism, it felt very contemporary and interesting to see a female character with commitment and relationship issues - the word “asshole” is used to describe Rob a lot, and it rings true a fair amount of times. During a key moment in which we really see this dimension in Rob, we hear The Animals’ Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood covered by Nina Simone. A song which - for many - reminds us of an eerie psychotic sort of person, becomes softened; rather than disliking Rob, we sense that there is deeper emotional baggage lurking beneath her behaviour. We see clearly how men and women can both play very similar roles in relationships, and can hold the same flaws and tendencies.
Rob’s best friend, Cherise (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), portrays an equally exciting and influential representation of the modern woman. Cherise’s music taste is at times a punchline - her opinions are vast and she comes up with unusual and very specific combinations of styles, saying that her influences are:
“Stevie Wonder 1966-1977, only James Brown "Live at the Apollo 1963" (mostly side A), King Crimson but not so prog, Dungen but more Nordic, Cream but only Ginger and Jack. The tambourine on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the tambourine on Edwin Starr's "War!" Think Brian Eno producing Beyonce fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”
Whilst it's definitely a shame that we don’t get to see Cherise in a romantic sense, it is her movement from comediairn into serious musician that cultivates an emotional viewing. Throughout the series she is very good at simply telling others about the music she will one day create - always procrastinating, saying she’s nearly there, the ball just needs to get rolling - so much so, that when she actually does begin to make her first steps, those around her are shocked. We first meet Cherise with her enthusiastic reaction to ‘Come on Eileen’ playing and in her final scene she is performing her own original music, showing the progression of her from a listener to a creator.The determination and self-assured nature of Cherise demonstrates how the stereotypical ‘all talk no action’ millennial can easily surprise those around them.
The key way in which the series articulates developments such as these, is in the soundtrack. As far as Rob and her peers are concerned, it is, and will always be, about music. They work in a record store in Brooklyn where they devote long hours of their day to playing and discussing music in incredible detail. The therapeutic qualities of music are laced throughout the series, as characters outline their perfect mix tapes, types of vocal experimentation in legendary singers and, as in the original novel and 2000 movie with John Cussack, their top-fives. The soundtrack itself is, as I’m sure many others agree, a compilation of some of the best. In Rob’s narrative, we move from classic soul and blues with Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers into the funk and disco of Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross, also residing neatly within more experimental works of Prince and Frank Ocean. In the narrative of the third friend in the group, Simon (played by David H. Holmes), there is a bigger focus on guitars and 80’s synths, with Talking Heads, The Replacements and Stiff Little Fingers bridging the gap between Rob’s fourth wall and his own, followed by Dead Kennedys and Soft Cell illustrating his own story.
High Fidelity offers a combination of older more ‘classic’ music (think rock’n’roll, soul, disco and punk) and alongside modern experimental music, with Ho99o9, Grapetooth and BOYTOY just naming a few. This illustrates how the experience of love and heartache is timeless and ultimately its core format will never change, but their idiosyncrasies do. This collaboration of old and new is mirrored in the locations of New York, specifically Brooklyn. We see sweeping, familiar shots of the New York we’ve seen on the screen for decades, similar to the original High Fidelity film in 2000 - grand brick buildings, steep metal apartment stairwells, vendors on streets. Making Brooklyn seem more nuanced to this story, however, we see it through its citizens' eyes; specific details of neon as they drunkenly walk the streets, the regular bodega and paired-back bar that they visit multiple times throughout the series. Almost any shot instantly reminds us the show is set in New York, but it's not the New York that is rinsed and repeated throughout film and tv.
Overall, I absolutely think this a show worth watching, regardless of who you are or what your orientation is. It’s exciting to see protagonists who are queer, POC, plus-sized and most importantly loving, funny, smart and complex (the fantastic soundtrack is definitely a plus too! So much so, in fact, I found a site with the whole thing in a list - enjoy!)
You can listen to the soundtrack HERE