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New ‘High Fidelity’ refreshes music geek image

Dan Deluca
The Philadelphia Inquirer

There’s a scene in “High Fidelity,” the new Hulu series starring Zoe Kravitz as a record store owner, in which her character, Rob (short for Robyn), shows up unannounced at the apartment of British ex-boyfriend Mac.

She wants to hear him say that he loves her more than his new partner, Lily, and that the couple have no plans to marry, thereby ruining Rob’s life. (Good luck with that.)

But Rob needs to know something else, something equally important. Has Mac listened to her playlist?

Since they split up, Rob has been doing on her own what she and her two employees, Simon and Cherise, routinely do together in a shop rarely overrun with customers: make lists. They might be exercises in pop culture fandom — top 5 David Bowie albums, greatest movie villains of all time — or more serious collections, like the top 5 breakups in Rob’s life that have left her unattached in her early 30s.

On that, Mac is No. 1, and his absence in her life inspires Rob to make a playlist because — well, isn’t that what you do in a time of emotional crisis?

“It’s like a love letter,” Rob explains, speaking directly to the camera.

The characters in “High Fidelity,” a gender-flipped adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, are people who need music to figure out how to feel.

Making a playlist isn’t just about throwing together a bunch of songs you enjoy. For Rob, her mix, which starts out with David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” is about expressing something personal to someone she cares deeply about — without the risk of putting her feelings into words. The music does the talking.

As it is for Kravitz’s Rob, so it was for the male protagonist of the same name in Hornby’s novel, as well as in the 2000 Stephen Frears film starring John Cusack. All three own a store called Championship Vinyl. All need to learn that judging people by their taste in pop culture — defining someone’s worth by what they like, rather than what they’re like — inevitably leads to disappointment.

In the new Hulu version, the focus is no longer on socially awkward, straight white men.

Rob is a woman who dates women and men. Simon (David H. Holmes) is gay. Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is African American, and far more likable than the Jack Black version of the character in the movie. (Check out Randolph dancing to Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come On Eileen” in the pilot.)

“The movie and the book are kind of perfect iterations of the source material,” Veronica West, show co-creator with Sarah Kucserka, told the Hollywood Reporter. “To make it modern and tell a different story, it seems like doing that from a female point of view was absolutely necessary.”

Modernizing: Making it modern also means reflecting the ways being a music geek has been changed by technology in a generation.

Counterintuitively, Championship Vinyl is probably less anachronistic in the Hulu series than it was in Hornby’s novel, which was set in 1995, the height of the CD era, when people were selling off LPs, a dated medium, clearly doomed.

In 2020, vinyl is booming. That’s in response to a demand for physical product in an ephemeral marketplace where iPods and digital downloads are passe and streaming music services like Spotify and Apple Music have reshaped listening habits.

Kravitz’s Rob is an old soul who treasures her record collection, and doesn’t have the technical savvy to use Instagram to spy on her ex. She’s “an analog person in a digital world,” said West, rephrasing an Erykah Badu lyric.

But a digital world it is, like it or not. And for music fans, there’s plenty to like — principally, that streaming services make available pretty much all the music ever recorded.

The Hulu “High Fidelity” does a great job of taking advantage of that limitless digital jukebox. It reflects how the internet has diversified listening, with genre barriers broken down. You’ll hear Frank Zappa, the Notorious B.I.G., Blondie, Manzanita y Su Conjunto, Darondo and deep Prince cuts like “So Blue.”

The excellence of the soundtrack — ace tastemaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots is executive music producer — can be heard on a nine-hour Spotify playlist of 142 songs. Press play, and listen away.

The mix: That ease of use typifies the streaming era. Things were more labor intensive in the original “High Fidelity,” when making a mix meant dropping a needle on songs in your personal collection.

“I spent hours putting that cassette together,” Rob recounts in the novel, talking about the tape he used to woo Laura, the original Mac. “There’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again … A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do.”

In the reboot, Rob approaches her task with similar seriousness. She won’t settle for a playlist programmed by an algorithm. Nor will she click on Spotify’s anodyne 92-track ‘Break Up Songs’ playlist promising “the best cure for a broken heart!”

She wants to make something human that speaks to Mac’s soul. In some ways, streaming technology makes her task easy. She’s not limited to 45 minutes per side on a cassette, or 80 minutes on a recordable CD. And she doesn’t have to buy the songs. Like all streaming service users, she’s renting.

But in other ways, the job is harder. The modern music consumer must overcome the paralysis that results from too many options. If I can play absolutely anything, where do I start?

In the second episode — titled Track 2 — Rob mulls what song should come after “Modern Love.” It’s an important decision. It has to be good enough to follow David Bowie, and also start to tell a story. It needs to say, “Keep listening,” Rob explains. “There might be more here than you thought.”

After much deliberation, she arrives at “Is It Any Wonder,” by Durand Jones & the Indications — a deliciously romantic slow dance number by a retro-soul band still flying under the radar. Nice one!

There’s a problem with Rob’s obsession with the sequence of the songs: the shuffle button. Mixtape making has always allowed fans to put the songs they love in the order of their choice. Back when they were made on CD-Rs and cassettes, they stayed that way.

When Rob asks Mac if he’s played her “Modern Love” playlist, he says he has. But he doesn’t reveal whether he’s also followed her “Thou Shall Not Shuffle the Lady’s Playlist” commandment and listened to her story in the order she wanted it told. That’s one thing that the music geek doesn’t get to control. In the digital era, the listener decides.