Music tends to be a very difficult thing to describe. If a record is really successful, no discussion should be necessary, it should be totally capable of standing alone. At best, critics and commentators can draw attention to the power of a record, or the depth of emotion in a song, but should never try to capture essence of the music in another medium.
Hollywood has a habit of breaking this rule. Movies like Ray, or Walk the Line do a decent job of telling an artist’s story, but fail miserably when trying to capture the music-making process. The polished aesthetic of a Hollywood movie can’t possibly hope to communicate the factors that went into Ray Charles writing “Drown in My Own Tears”.
However, one Hollywood movie captured the other side of this equation perfectly. It’s a movie called High Fidelity which stars John Cusack as a neurotic record store owner and fully accredited music nerd. It’s a romantic comedy where Cusack goes through his top five breakups, describing what went wrong and what he learned (or didn’t learn) from each one.
The presence of music in this movie isn’t so much a theme as a character. Like when Rob (John Cusack), is calling his ex-girlfriends trying to figure out what happened and the persona behind Bruce Springsteen’s records gives him advice. Or later on, while trying to cope with being alone, Rob organizes his record collection auto-biographically. There’s a great image of him sitting on the floor surrounded by towers of vinyl, piecing together the story of his life through the records he owns. The movie isn’t saturated with music references, but it’s always there. It informs and advises like a friend.
The reason that High Fidelity gets away with all of this is that it isn’t trying to explain how or why music works. There’s no attempt to figure out why Marvin Gaye made the music he did. Instead, it focuses on how the music Marvin Gaye made affects us. High Fidelity takes the perspective of an audience member, of an appreciator instead of a critic. Rather than celebrate an artist of a movement, this movie celebrates music itself and the power it has over us.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org