February 3, 2020

For all its arcane music-geek delights, High Fidelity isn’t exactly a showcase for complex female characters. Released in 2000, director Stephen Frears’ adaptation of the Nick Hornby novel about a self-absorbed record-store owner (John Cusack’s Rob) who keeps sabotaging his relationships features a roll call of cool Gen X women: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Lili Taylor, Sara Gilbert, Cusack’s sister Joan, Danish actor Iben Hjejle as Rob’s latest girlfriend. They are love interests, exes, helpful friends of exes—and all either victims of the 30-something male characters’ arrested development or vehicles for their maturation. Lisa Bonet shows up as a nightclub singer Rob lures into bed by falsely portraying himself as a “decent, sensitive guy.”

So it’s some kind of divine justice that a 10-episode High Fidelity reboot, coming to Hulu on Valentine’s Day, casts Big Little Lies star Zoë Kravitz—actor, singer and daughter of Bonet and rocker Lenny Kravitz—as the lead. The character’s name is still Rob (now short for Robin); she’s still a former DJ who owns a record store (in Brooklyn, rather than the film’s Chicago); and she still drowns her romantic woes in sad, obscure songs and self-pitying reminiscences of the ones who got away. But with her birdlike bone structure, boyish wardrobe and braids, Kravitz (who’s also an executive producer of the show) looks almost identical to her mother in the original. And while it’s hard to imagine rooting for Cusack’s dour, womanizing Rob 20 years later, this revision works.

When we meet Kravitz’s Rob, she’s a year into mourning her most recent love, Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Mac. Chronologically, he’s “number five with a bullet” on her Desert Island Top 5 All-Time Most Memorable Heartbreaks list—a hit parade she recites in the closeup that opens the premiere, her voice shaky and her eyes rimmed with red. In an effort to prove that she’s finally over Mac, she goes on a date with a kind, if slightly basic Colorado transplant named Clyde (Obvious Child’s Jake Lacy). For him, their hookup feels like the beginning of something great; for her, it’s just another one-night stand. So she strings him along, denying their chemistry and his kindness by pining for Mac, sleeping with a much-younger musician and investigating what went wrong in relationships dating back to middle school.

Rob’s sole source of stability is Championship Vinyl, the Crown Heights record shop she runs with two employees who are her only friends. Like Jack Black’s pugnacious clerk in the original movie with a dash of chaotic Tracy Morgan bravado, Cherise (a hilarious Da’Vine Joy Randolph, poised to break out since her role in last year’s Dolemite Is My Name) is a singer and songwriter who’s too busy boasting to actually make music. And Simon (David H. Holmes) is Rob’s gentle ex-boyfriend, who turned out to be gay.

If you know anything about New York real estate or the streaming economy, it might be hard to suspend your disbelief that a 29-year-old who isn’t independently wealthy could keep an overstaffed record store afloat in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Happily, the effort pays off. For music lovers, the show assembles just the right mixtape of genres, eras, singles and deep cuts—with artists ranging from icons like Whitney Houston and David Bowie to less widely celebrated names like Ann Peebles and the Replacements—in a thoughtful soundtrack overseen by pop’s preeminent omnivore, Questlove.

What’s even more satisfying is how a change in casting shifts the meaning of Hornby and Frears’ stories. From the most recent version of Ghostbusters to Ocean’s 8, gender-flipped reboots tend to offer female-empowerment bromides and little else. But there’s something subtler going on in High Fidelity. In every episode, we get to see women, queer people and people of color to whom music matters just as much as it does to the archetypal straight, white, man-child record collector.

In a blow against essentialism, these characters are multifaceted human beings before they’re representatives of their gender, race or sexual orientation. An episode told from Simon’s point of view integrates the punk bands he prefers to divas. Smart, sad, difficult and deeply relatable, Kravitz’s Rob is neither a standard flirty, klutzy rom-com girl, desperate to nab an emotionally unavailable guy, nor a kickass female role model. In this High Fidelity, it isn’t just guys who get to be snobby or caddish or self-destructive.

“I don’t wanna lose the person I used to be,” a man in the midst of a cocaine-fueled midlife-crisis bender whines to his pregnant wife in one episode. “I like that guy. He’s super chill.” Her glorious reply: “I don’t wanna lose the guy I used to be, either.”

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