Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity” is the kind of novel that you wish came with a soundtrack. Detailing the romantic floundering of a record-store owner and vinyl fetishist named Rob, “High Fidelity” is partly about the difference between real love and the way love is expressed in pop music. One of the book’s — and now the movie’s — most telling moments is when Rob arranges his massive album collection “autobiographically.” Like so many obsessive music fans, he can only identify his emotions by song titles.
The movie, perhaps inevitably, is disappointing. While the book puts you inside Rob’s head and thus forces you to empathize with all his romantic clumsiness and half-assed rationalizations, watching someone behave that pathetically on-screen is an entirely different affair.
At least the movie comes with a great soundtrack. The thrilling compilation plays like a dream mix tape made by a friend with an impeccable, expansive record collection and plenty of time to waste — someone like Rob. As Rob’s emotions consist largely of variations on the themes of romantic dejection and hangdog longing, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack is largely a journey through several decades of jangly rock melancholia. The characters in both book and movie are the types of music snobs who both worship the classics and revel in obscurity, and the soundtrack balances perfectly between the two tendencies. Canonical musicians like Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, the Kinks and Stevie Wonder are represented, as are indie darlings like Smog, Stereolab and the Beta Band and often-forgotten older acts like Love and Thirteenth Floor Elevators.
Even though many of the artists are rock idols, the songs included are ones that haven’t lost their power through endless radio repetition. Instead of using something predictable like “Tangled Up in Blue,” for example, the producers include Dylan’s gorgeous, dreamy and forlorn 1989 song “Most of the Time.” Like the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ howler “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” “Most of the Time” is about sadness hiding behind vanity and injured pride. It’s the perfect complement to Rob’s agonized fumbling.
Both Velvet Underground songs are lazily despondent classics from “Loaded” — “Oh! Sweet Nuthin” and “Who Loves the Sun.” Impressively, the producers have found relatively unknown songs that can hold their own alongside them. The Beta Band’s fabulous “Dry the Rain” combines free-form stoner-rock romanticism with a chilled, undulating bass and hook-filled horns. And Sheila Nicholls’ shivery “Fallen for You” nails the pathos of Hornby’s story with the line “That was just another song you wrote/For another girl.” Most arresting of all is Smog’s spare, weary “Cold Blooded Old Times,” which gets its power almost entirely from the slight vibration in Bill Callahan’s otherwise crisp, deadpan voice as he repeats the line “The type of memories that turn your bones to glass.”
There’s only one true misstep on this otherwise superb collection. Jack Black, the nauseatingly gregarious beast who plays Rob’s record-store employee Barry, pretty much destroys every scene he’s in with his overbearing Farrelly brothers-style physical comedy. In the movie he sings a kitschy version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” which, sadly, also appears here. Whether or not the track was intended as parody, Black’s vaguely nasal, soulless voice makes the otherwise slavish re-creation seem like a joke.
Its inclusion is especially annoying considering all the tracks that were left off the record — according to the press notes, there were 59 songs in the movie, and the space taken up by Black could have gone to Barry White, Stiff Little Fingers or the Roots. (Of course, there were licensing issues, but that’s beside the point.) “High Fidelity” includes a lecture on the proper way to make a mix tape, and though Rob never says it, surely one of the cardinal rules is never to clog a comp with novelty junk.