Even with the miraculous Second Coming of vinyl, the prospects for a successful reboot of the record-store drama “High Fidelity” seemed grim. Twenty years after the John Cusack film, nearly 25 after Nick Hornby’s novel, the shrines to vinyl depicted in the book and movie — epicenters of local music scenes, vanguards of taste and attitude, places where music fans congregated, debated and dated — are virtually extinct. Sure, they’re still beloved centers of fandom and fetishism, but these days they usually feel more like libraries or museums than the musical newsstands they used to be.
Yet Hulu’s reimagining of the franchise is a remarkable success on virtually every level. The reinvention of the setting and storyline are clever and on point, and the acting and characters are believable (given the context) and lovingly rendered — and it would seem to herald the arrival of Zoe Kravitz as a major new star.
Best of all for music fans, the 10-episode first season of “High Fidelity” is deeply authentic, with characters that fit several vinyl and/or music-geek stereotypes (disclosure: this writer worked in record stores for many years). There’s the grumpy but lovable owner of Championship Vinyl (Kravitz as Rob), and two other archetypes as employees: the brainy, insecure punk-rocker (David H. Holmes as Simon) and the attitudinal self-proclaimed musician (Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise) who is always about to form a band or drop some music, even though no one has ever heard any of it. There’s the circle of friends and hangers-on who cycle in and out, the competing store a few streets away, and the annoying customers who drive the staff crazy but are tolerated because they might buy something.
The setting of the store — a basement in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood — is especially realistic, not least because it’s nearly empty at all times except Saturday afternoons. Characters and scenes from the book and film are cleverly reimagined or updated: John Cusack and Jack Black’s characters are played by women of color; the “I will now sell five copies of this Beta Band album” scene has been updated to Swamp Dogg; the therapeutic obsessing over mixtapes has segued neatly into playlists; and the scene from the book about the woman selling her cheating husband’s priceless record collection, which was cut from the film, is the centerpiece of one episode, with an almost-as-priceless turn by Parker Posey. Even the choice and range of guest cameos — Deborah Harry and Jack Antonoff — is inspired, with the former appearing as an apparition and the latter as a music producer who holds a falafel sandwich distressingly close to the precious recording console at Electric Lady Studios. “High Fidelity” is clearly made by, for and about genuine music and record-store lovers.
But across the ten episodes of the show’s excellent first season, one element doesn’t quite ring true, and it’s a big one: The music. It’s all over the place, like the seemingly random albums on display in the store: Tina Turner, the Make-Up, Yes and Jay Reatard albums are next to each other behind the counter; the show’s synchs wander from Nick Drake to Ann Peebles to David Bowie to Notorious B.I.G. to garage rock. Diversity is awesome, it’s all great music and there are many scenes beautifully illustrated by songs, but it feels like there’s no center — like it’s on shuffle rather than a playlist.
What’s missing is the tribalization of music genres, and the aggression and defensiveness that comes with it. In the book, the film and most “real” record stores over the years, the employees have a fanatical, at times frightening sense of mission about the music they love. Dick, the dorky character in the film, lives for the Scottish indie-pop group Belle and Sebastian, and is deeply insulted when Jack Black’s hard-rock-loving character mocks him and the group. These people and their tribes take their music very, very personally.
This kind of genre-ization/ ghettoization was so pronounced at the turn of the century that most major cities had multiple record stores catering to the various tribes. In New York, the East and West Village had the hip-hop mecca Fat Beats, the ‘60s-rock emporium Record Runner, the punk spawning ground Bleecker Bob’s, the indie-esoterica-and-more of Other Music and many more (of course, they all closed down years ago). That tribalization was often reflected in the staffs of savvy stores, with hip-hop or punk or metal or jazz fans-turned-specialists who’d draw regular customers with their knowledge, taste and attitude.
While Championship Vinyl’s staff consists of just three people, we don’t really see that tribalism anywhere in this “High Fidelity.” Which isn’t to say that these characters aren’t highly opinionated music fans — they indisputably are, and the show’s details and music banter are A++. Rob is seen wearing a Beastie Boys T-shirt as a child in a flashback scene, and then wearing a different Beastie Boys T-shirt when the setting shifts back to the present; when her coworkers are worried about her being depressed, their concerns are confirmed when they discover she’s been listening to “Minnie Riperton? Sh–!”; in one episode she crushes an arrogant older man with a succinct take on why Paul McCartney’s live 1976 version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” is better than the studio recording; in another, Simon has paintings by Steve Keene, whose work was ubiquitous in indie-rock circles, on his apartment wall. And there’s loads of classic record-store dialogue: “Hot Chip is playing a DJ set at a secret location tonight.” “Oh, we know the location: 2007.”
But oddly, their musical tastes are much less defined than their personalities. We don’t really find out until late in the first season that Simon is a punk-rock fanatic, or that Charise — outwardly a black girl from the hood — loves indie rock (she name-checks Kurt Cobain, David Byrne and Belinda Butcher of My Bloody Valentine when talking about the Fender Mustang guitar she covets). And Rob seems to love a lot of things equally.
They’re fanatics, sure. But they’re fanatics for all music, which is kind of like being a fanatic for all of baseball rather than one team.
Maybe this is a reflection of overthink by the show’s four music supervisors — and a de facto fifth in Kravitz and sixth in Roots drummer Questlove, the show’s executive music producer and the Michael Jordan of music geeks, and doubtless others weighed in, too.
Or, maybe it’s a reflection of the musical diversity that streaming has created, the genre-breaking that has brought more emo-punk than hip-hop references to Soundcloud rap, or the motorik beat to the new Wiz Khalifa single.
Or, maybe the internet and streaming have made tribalism obsolete and things aren’t like that anymore — at least, not in Championship Vinyl — and Rob and Simon and Charise are virtually mocking this old guy mercilessly from the store counter right now … but not loudly enough for me to hear, because I might buy something.