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With superficial pleasures, Hulu's High Fidelity gets by on Zoë Kravitz's mesmerizing performance

  • The gender-flipped adaptation of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel and the 2000 film starring John Cusack "is a terrifically cool show that gets awfully far on vibes alone, thanks in large part to a mesmerizing lead performance from Zoë Kravitz," says Margaret Lyons. "She’s so good, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to believe she can’t find someone to love her exactly as-is. I’d say 'warts and all,' but come on: Those are artful tattoos and elegant beauty marks." Lyons adds: "I get that the main character is afraid to commit, but her show seems afraid to commit, too. At 10 episodes, it still feels superficial — beautiful, certainly, with an aesthetic that’s glowy but never sweaty, but vague." Still, Kravitz is why High Fidelity works. "Thanks to Kravitz’s performance, I still cared tremendously about Rob and her well being," says Lyons. "She possesses that alluring hot-and-cold quality that can be so addictive before you know better, alternating between self-flagellating confessions and a generalized misanthropic snobbery. But while that defines Robs in every iteration, it’s different here, less because of gender and race — though, you know, that too — than because of era. Making a Spotify playlist is not the same as making a mixtape, and the obsessive ranking of things means less in 2020 than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Not only have a million blogs spawned a billion listicles, and thus everything has already been ranked (some by yours truly!), but we also are never more than a few clicks away from an infinite library. Amassing a record collection might mean that you love music. It also means you really love stuff, which is something different. Even though this High Fidelity does not seem connected to music qua music, it succeeds at recognizing and reveling in the joys of certainty and domain."


    • High Fidelity has no business being on in 2020 -- it's like watching a square peg get painfully hammered into a round hole: "This High Fidelity would make so much more sense if it were set in a yoga studio (or a dog-grooming salon) instead of a record store," says Hank Stuever. "The cynical prickliness of the material — along with Rob’s incessant fourth-wall narration, describing her woe-is-me mismanagement of her own feelings — is too easily recognizable as a forgery. The old High Fidelity, which was about a man hounding his ex-girlfriends to explain to him why and how he failed as a boyfriend, got creepier with age. The new show believes this problem can be solved by putting a woman in the role of a hapless ex. Let her be the one to stand in the rain and scream obscenities outside someone’s window late at night, just as the male character did...Unfortunately, there’s no meaningful power to be drawn from this role reversal. The obsessive narcissism that formed Hornby’s novel strikes a clunky flat note instead of a sharp, making it difficult for Kravitz to summon a convincing performance that could help bridge the divide....High Fidelity’s other obsession — record collecting — is an obvious misfit in the Spotify age, which the show doesn’t stop to fully ponder or, better yet, use as a means to fan an argument. Rather than imagine what a music fetish would look and feel like now, with all its attendant phases of discovery and passion and format disputes, the series lazily imposes the old school onto the new, even recycling a good part of the movie soundtrack’s playlist."
    • At its best High Fidelity is a joyful takedown of toxic masculinity set to a killer soundtrack: "With Kravitz stepping into the role of Rob, now a queer black woman who owns a record store in Brooklyn, High Fidelity becomes a much more sincere project," says Krutika Mallikarjuna. "By the very nature of the generational shift to millennials — and the change in leads — Hulu's adaptation has nary an ironic bone in sight (a fact beautifully reflected in the expressive soundtrack, curated by the one and only Questlove). This will, of course, be off-putting to a lot of fans of the original, considering how solidly one haplessly cruel man became so entrenched in pop culture. But in not trying to re-explore territory that's been thoroughly trod, Kravitz's Rob becomes a study in burnout, stagnation, and mental health. High Fidelity is a millennial show that deals in millennial problems, and Rob is no longer asking why is this happening to me? but rather why am I like this?"
    • Zoë Kravitz’s versatility as an actor is put on full display, even if she's more low key than John Cusack: "Even when the series traffics in scenarios that echo previous High Fidelities — which, for the record, may not be as familiar to younger audiences or Championship Vinyl newbies — it’s still enjoyable to hang out in its universe," says Jen Chaney. "Kravitz is a big reason why. Like Cusack, she speaks directly to camera, but she’s a much more low-key presence. Where Cusack vibrated with the desire to make sure other people knew and agreed with all of his opinions, Kravitz is eager to explain why she likes what she likes but is less judgmental of others’ tastes. She is so effortlessly cool that it seems like she shouldn’t have any self-doubt, but that makes her self-doubt that much more powerful. Everyone feels like a misfit toy or a broken being from time to time, and Kravitz is equipped to telegraph that kind of vulnerability and sadness — and she’s just as equipped to make Rob look like her heartlight has been turned on full blast as soon as she sees a rare copy of David Bowie’s 'The Man Who Sold the World.' The actor’s versatility is on fuller display here than it has been in previous projects, and that’s a pleasure to see."
    • High Fidelity is a soulless cover where every decision is a fumble: "If there's a way to make a counterintuitive gambit like a female-centric version of High Fidelity work, the creatives behind this one certainly haven't found it," says Inkoo Kang. "Nearly every major decision, from the premise to the casting to the grueling callbacks to the film, is a fumble. The show isn't just unnecessary; it's a largely soulless cover that doesn't understand what made the original distinctive. Perhaps most dispiritingly, the marvelous wit and poignancy of the two episodes whose storylines appear to be wholly invented by the show's writers suggest that a great deal of talent was wasted on trying to give life to a seemingly DOA concept." Kang adds: "Stretching out a two-hour movie into a five-hour drama while emptying it of its thematic substance and cultural relevance with little to replace them is exasperating enough. But High Fidelity also asks us to disbelieve our eyes by positing Kravitz — who is very much styled here as 'Zoe Kravitz, impossibly glamorous daughter of a rock star' — as a relatable everywoman, which feels as if a young Lenny Kravitz was cast as one of the Freaks and Geeks. If anyone can be too gorgeous and effortlessly cool for a role, it's Kravitz here..."
    • It's a big deal that Rob has been re-written as a biracial, bisexual woman who is as knowledgeable about music as John Cusack's Rob was: "Even in its mopey-ness, High Fidelity is an enjoyable watch," says Sadie Bell. "Sure, some episode plots are better than others (see the episode with guest star Parker Posey, for example) and the update for 2020 can feel shoved in your face (such as the weird influencer party episode), but altogether it'll put you in your feels and its great cast makes it fun."
    • It's a huge credit to Kravitz's performance and innate charm that she remains likable despite revelations of past wrongs: "She hurts and causes hurt, just like the rest of us," says Kelly Lawler. "Kravitz, whose mother Lisa Bonet starred in the film, imbues Rob with a cool factor emphasized by the character's bohemian wardrobe and distaste for Instagram influencers and gentrification. She has chemistry with nearly every romantic or platonic foil she faces."
    • High Fidelity captures a fundamental reorientation in listening these days: "Elitist condescension about musical preferences isn’t cool anymore, but maybe—die-hard fans fear—obsessing and connecting over music are no longer cool either," says Spencer Kornhaber. "Barry-types once used their taste to prop themselves above the less erudite, mainstream-minded listeners they mocked. Cherise, by contrast, just wants to chat about a song—and the consumer, cozy in a private digital bubble, decidedly does not. The much-discussed 'death of the snob' in the internet era explains part of the shift on display. Even though some High Fidelity–style shops catering to vinyl collectors have survived the extinction of big-box retailers, streaming and downloads have chipped away at the super-listener’s pretexts for arrogance: special knowledge (entire discographies are now explorable with a click), special access (few B sides can hide from Google), and curatorial chops (algorithms can DJ your life)."
    • High Fidelity finally gives Kravitz the platform to show off the depth of her talent: "For as long as she’s been acting, Kravitz has seemed adrift in star-powered ensembles," says Meghan O'Keefe. "Here, Kravitz doesn’t just lead the show, but she commands it. She has to carry the viewer through lengthy monologues, multiple montages, ferocious flashbacks, and offbeat comedic set ups — and she does so seemingly effortlessly. Equal parts captivating and totally vulnerable, Kravitz seizes High Fidelity like she’s a conquering warlord. (She doesn’t just star in the series; she also executive produces High Fidelity and co-wrote one of the best episodes in the first season.)"
    • High Fidelity is a laid-back hangout comedy: "Really, once you get past the premise, TV comedies are all about assembling a group of people you want to hang out with each week, and High Fidelity has put together a fun little trio to spend a half-hour with," says Dave Nemetz. "(Oh, did I mention the episodes are only a half-hour long? Such a bonus, in this Peak TV era!)"
    • High Fidelity is a Top 5 most disappointing retread: "Love is a two-way street, not the one-sided relationship you have with your favorite songs, which is in service only to you and requires nothing in return," says Tim Grierson. "A really smart remake could highlight those ironies — or demonstrate how this lack of emotional maturity isn’t just the domain of men. Sadly, Hulu’s High Fidelity doesn’t really do either. Most disappointingly, it gets the music element wrong, which is strange considering how unique of an era we’re living in for audiophiles. In the 20 years since the film came out, mixtapes have been replaced by playlists, vinyl has become a fetishized object and the industry has moved away from albums to individual tracks — and from artists making money on record sales to scraping by on endless touring and other ancillary means. This High Fidelity, however, isn’t particularly interested in that reality — or how it would affect music-lovers like Rob and her employees — and not nearly obsessive enough in its depiction of what music means to people. Again, that more moderate version of fandom would seem to be the healthier way to live — the TV show doesn’t even spend a lot of time on Top 5 lists — but without that nerding-out, High Fidelity’s protagonist loses her primary obstacle, and therefore, much of the show’s reason to exist."
    • Zoë Kravitz and John Cusack are perfect for High Fidelity adaptations: Kravitz and Cusack "are about as different as two actors could possibly be, but they both share that magnetism that makes you want to follow them down this path, even though you know it won’t end well," says LaToya Ferguson. "Considering how much of High Fidelity—both the series and the movie—is just Rob monologuing to the audience, casting that role was easily the most integral decision made when it came right down to it. A**hole or not, Rob has to be a captivating enough storyteller—even when he or she isn’t even the greatest character—to make people stick around. That exists here just like it did 20 years ago, which is the most necessary part of the equation. In fact, with Hulu’s High Fidelity, it’s almost like a magic trick, as Kravitz is immensely likable as Rob, so much so that the show is able to lull the audience into a false sense of security about the inevitable fact that the character—by nature of the catalyst of the story in the first place—is, in fact, 'an a**hole,' just like the source material. We know from the very beginning though that she’s a pretentious whiskey drinker—on top of the pretentious music nerd component—who just can’t quit smoking."
    • High Fidelity replaces a white man with a black woman, and it actually works: "It’s easy to believe that gestures like this are well-intentioned, but it’s hard not to be cynical about them," says Tomi Obaro. "Making one character black or queer or trans in a book or movie or TV show that is otherwise white or straight or cis can often feel like transparent pandering. (See J.K. Rowling’s half-assed decision, years after the fact, to make Dumbledore gay or the recent slate of mediocre gender-flipped action movies.) And when these sorts of changes are merely cosmetic — when there’s been no attempt to consider how different identity markers affect the characters’ lives — the story usually suffers." Obaro adds that High Fidelity "is a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation — one that takes race and especially gender into consideration," retaining "the arch charm of the movie — even replicating some shots and lines word for word — while nixing the creepy undercurrents of misogyny and entitlement from Cusack’s character for a Rob who is just as self-absorbed but also compassionate and insecure. The changes don’t feel pandering, didactic, or overbearing. And even when the show occasionally falls short, underutilizing the only other prominent black woman character on the show, it just makes me curious to see what another season of the series might bring. The new High Fidelity is proof that sometimes switching up a character’s race or gender or orientation can, when it’s done with care, create new possibilities."
    • There’s little that truly makes this incarnation of High Fidelity stand on its own: "Like the previous incarnation of Rob, Kravitz’s take is that of a cool girl…but no one knows it," says Kristen Lopez. "As the series develops we’re told that Rob doesn’t have her life together but it kinda seems like she does. For starters, she lives in a fairly spacious New York apartment that she can afford once Mac moves out. She has stable friendships, a loving family, and a presumably successful business! But, where High Fidelity in 2000 used Rob’s trip down relationship lane to show that he is the problem, it doesn’t work here. Kravitz’s Rob becomes the hot girl complaining about why no one loves her and, thus, her only problem in life is that she doesn’t have a relationship to define her. What’s more frustrating is that this apathetic character ends up dampening Kravitz’s natural spark. She’s just left to look dour, only coming alive when she’s talking about music and giving audiences’ a glimpse of what the character could be."
    • High Fidelity is a delight, even if it misses some fundamental ideas from Nick Hornby's book: "Hornby was writing about a very specific and insufferable flavor of male arrested development and the ways obsessive fandom can become a debilitating crutch for such an overgrown adolescent," says Alan Sepinwall. "(Executive producers Sarah) Kucserka and (Veronica) West give their Rob different self-destructive hang-ups — emotionally (and with the way her asides to the camera are shot and edited), she resembles Fleabag more than Cusack — which don’t seem as fundamentally connected to her love of music as was the case with prior Robs. Her encyclopedic knowledge is believable (many of the series’ most pleasurable moments come from how clearly everyone involved is a music nerd), but thematically, she could just as easily own a restaurant as a record shop."
    • It feels like the show is less of an ambitious gimmick and more something with actual potential: "If you wanted to be pat about it, you could describe this show as Insecure for alternative Black girls, but it is, of course, a little more complex than that," says Zeba Blay. "Where Insecure is about the protagonist Issa ultimately stepping firmly into who she is outside of her romantic relationships, High Fidelity is more about understanding the people we become when we are in a relationship. Also, Issa is likable. Much like the white male protagonist her character is based on, Rob is ultimately an a**hole. We root for her, but halfway through the series we begin to realize that for all her relatable navel-gazing angst, she’s kind of the worst. It’s interesting that this one detail, connecting this show to all the previous iterations, is also, in a way, the most fascinating departure from the spirit of the original film."
    • High Fidelity gets better the further it strays from its source material: "At first, High Fidelity is a strange blend of remake and reboot," says Gwen Ihnat. "Fans of the original may find it jarring to differentiate between the film and television versions, with the return of some lines repeated pretty much word-for-word ('Number five with a bullet' and 'We have no customers! I thought that was a bad thing, not a business strategy'). Peter Frampton gets swapped out for Boyz II Men, the problematic Stevie Wonder record a customer wants is replaced by an even more problematic Michael Jackson record, which Rob maintains is redeemed by 'Quincy Jones’ horn charts.' Five copies of a Swamp Dog record are sold instead of The Beta Band. Kravitz’s Rob even wears the same Dickies T-shirt that Cusack does. The specter of 2000 hovers so prominently over this new High Fidelity that it threatens to overshadow the whole thing. Until, miraculously, it doesn’t."
    • High Fidelity's storyline needs more than Kravitz can give it: "Kravitz, so manifestly underused in Big Little Lies — a show whose second season promised to foreground her but found it had nothing to say about her character — gets to play lead, and she’s a good one: Warm, natural when speaking to camera, so inherently able to find an internal logic to her character’s dithering," says Daniel D'Addario. "But the story needs more help than Kravitz can give it, leaning on a fairly simple and uninteresting sort-of-love-triangle (she misses her ex, who is now engaged to someone else) that would not exist without coincidence and fairly unbelievable behavior on the part of all parties. (Rob’s ex, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, alternately hates Rob or acts like a man about to cheat with her, depending on what the story demands that moment.) Worst of all, there seems to be no motivating force behind the story: High Fidelity, the film, told a story of a man whose fetish for collecting and cataloging meant that, in love, he was unable to be present and human. High Fidelity, the TV show, has created a character who likes music and wants to be loved. Both of those traits are good starting points, but as endpoints — and placed into conversation despite being basically unrelated — they’re not enough."
    • High Fidelity works, but the emphasis on music from the past is distracting: "The soundtrack for High Fidelity has been overseen by Questlove, and it sounds great, but there is a heavy emphasis on the past," says Willa Paskin. "All the bands the show has Rob talking about at length, to demonstrate her mastery to the audience, are old and rockist: Fleetwood Mac, McCartney, Bowie, Minnie Riperton, and Swamp Dogg are the kind of acts that get shoutouts, and rap and hip-hop are barely played in the store. The young shoplifters who turn out to be making their own good music are also a kind of rock duo. Cherise, who, like Jack Black’s character in the film, really wants her own band, cites a huge number of older rock and R&B influences. There’s a sexy, up-and-coming rock star Rob’s sleeping with (the gender-swapped version of the character Lisa Bonet, Kravitz’s mother, played in the original film), who is produced by Jack Antonoff, but his most memorable performance is of Boyz II Men’s 1994 hit 'I’ll Make Love To You.' When Cherise plays a 'bad' song that she insists is also a bop, one that Rob and Simon eventually admit is kind of great, it’s 'Come On Eileen.' Rob is supposed to have unimpeachable taste, but it seems, instead, like she has the taste of a woman who doesn’t want to be accused of having chick taste, or even just millennial taste, which suggests a pretty different character than the musically confident and knowledgeable one Kravitz is playing."
    • Why Zoë Kravitz was the first person in mind to star in High Fidelity: "She exudes cool and exudes such a raw aura, to me, of somebody who you know has great opinions and great taste," says executive producer Sarah Kucserka. "Truly, she is the only person we sat down with on this project. I have a notebook still somewhere when we were making a casting (list), her name is at the top with three question marks of like 'Would she ever do this?' There’s so much personal connection obviously that she has with her mother (Lisa Bonet) being in the film but, to me, she just screamed the kind of person that would own a record shop and sit there and want to talk about music all day and find joy and love and happiness in all of that pop culture world."
    • High Fidelity hired three veteran music supervisors to make sure would play the perfect song for every moment
    • Kravitz's outfits reference Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain and Reality Bites-era Winona Ryder
    • Nick Hornby warns not to call the High Fidelity reboot "woke," recounts his conversation with Zoë Kravitz: "It’s weird that her father is a rock star," Hornby writes in Rolling Stone. "It’s weird that her mother was in the movie. It’s weird that both of them have posed naked for the cover of this magazine. Maybe this was all some kind of gimmick? But any doubts about her suitability for the gig, and her deep cultural seriousness, were dispelled partly by our conversation, and partly by the first playlist she sent me, featuring tracks by Alice Coltrane, Tierra Whack, William Onyeabor, Shuggie Otis, Betty Davis, Sun Ra, the Clash, Spirit, the MC5, and Darondo. Zoë might be a bona fide movie star, but she’s done a lot of crate-digging. I was pretty sure that she’d do a good job. She has. Every time I’ve had cause to dip back into the book, I’ve been struck by its melancholy. That’s transferred to the series; Zoë’s Rob has the blues. Her music is a shield against the world, but it can’t provide all the protection she needs — and in any case, her generation has more to worry about than mine ever did. I don’t think anyone who has read and loved the book, and/or seen and loved the movie could be disappointed with the series. I couldn’t be more proud of the show. And if I catch anyone saying it’s self-consciously 'woke,' what with its gender reversals and its inclusion of more than one race/sexuality, I will come ’round to your house and put you back to sleep. Because, guess what: High Fidelity isn’t just about you. It’s about people who aren’t like you, too."
    • Zoë Kravitz has always felt a connection with the movie High Fidelity: “For some reason,” she says, "High Fidelity was one of the few pieces of art that my parents had been a part of that I was really able to separate from them. It’s a weird thing, because it can be really uncomfortable and strange watching your mom kiss John Cusack or whatever, but it became a film that I loved and watched and could quote.”
    • Kravitz avoided watching Fleabag, says she could relate to her High Fidelity character: "Her inability to fully see herself is something I’ve experienced, something I’ve gone through," Kravitz says of playing Rob. "Someone who’s able to understand something like music so deeply, and then struggle to understand how a relationship works is really interesting to me. I’ve had those moments in my life where I felt like I understand art and music really well, I can talk about that, I can do that — but love is more complicated." Kravitz also had to train herself to break the fourth wall which was also a big part of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag. "I actually didn’t watch Fleabag on purpose until after the show, because when we were writing it and people learned I was talking to camera, the first thing they would say is Fleabag," she says. "I felt like if I saw the show I would either imitate, or be intimated by, or compare myself to Phoebe’s performance. I did not watch the show until after and then of course I loved it and thought it was f*cking perfect, but I was happy I waited until then."

    TOPICS: Zoë Kravitz, Hulu, High Fidelity, John Cusack, Nick Hornby, Sarah Kucserka, Veronica West