Romancing the music: "High Fidelity" and "Cherish the Day" find affection in their art

Hulu's series revamp of Nick Hornby's novel and Ava DuVernay's new OWN series explore how music informs identity

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 14, 2020 7:00PM (EST)

Xosha Roquemore & Alano Miller in "Cherish the Day" / Zoe Kravitz in "High Fidelity" (Steven Baffo/Warner Bros./OWN/Phillip Caruso/Hulu)
Xosha Roquemore & Alano Miller in "Cherish the Day" / Zoe Kravitz in "High Fidelity" (Steven Baffo/Warner Bros./OWN/Phillip Caruso/Hulu)

Thematically speaking, little common ground exists between Ava DuVernay's OWN series "Cherish the Day" and Hulu's series adaptation of Nick Hornby's Gen X novel "High Fidelity" except for a shared reverence for art.

Hornby's hero (played by John Cusack in the 2000 movie and Zoe Kravitz in the series) is a professional music aficionado and a record shop owner. And Rob – yes, both are named Rob – filters relationship, emotion, and meaning through lyrics, hooks, and peerless guitar riffs.

In the film, Cusack's character is, frankly, a jerk. A lovelorn one, but a jerk nevertheless who possibly, maybe learns his lesson by the end of the film – or maybe it's simply that the love of his life learned to live with his self-importance and internalized devotion to his specific definition of cool and the boundaries surrounding.

Kravitz's take on Rob is more decidedly trapped in the blues, a woman undone by a breakup that stomped her heart a year prior to when the series joins her heartsick voyage. In truth, all of heartbreaks spin her out. But her most recent leaves her in full retreat, sunken into the relative predictability of her Brooklyn record shop and her small circle of companions – mainly her employees Cherise (Da'Vine Joy Randolph, taking over for Jack Black's Barry in this version) and nice guy Simon (David H. Holmes, the 2020 edition calm music nerd).

The music and art throughout "Cherish," meanwhile, serves as a force capable of bridging the distances between eras, social class and people – here, the free-spirited Gently (Xosha Roquemore) and the very life-ordered, financially successful Evan (Alano Miller).

The "will they, won't they" couple at the center of this OWN drama enjoys their meet-cute at a library, where Gently holds up the line by pleading to get the library to waive the overdue fees on a stack of classic movies. They aren't hers, understand – they were lent out to the elderly woman she cares for,  Luma Langston (Cicely Tyson), a retired actress who, in her heyday, was a contemporary of Golden Age cinema stars such as Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne.

There's much to enjoy about the way each of these series centralizes the mystique of art, the way a great song can externalize yearning and pain and eroticism on the behalf of the person who drops the needle into the precise groove on a record. Vinyl plays a huge role in Evan's impeccable collection of artwork and is the lifeblood of the business owned by Kravitz's Rob, and in each case this devotion to an otherwise obsolete media form is an identity marker.

Gently and Evan are from different economic classes; he's from a snobby, upper middle class family, she's from working class stock. But they vibe over a shared love of art and culture, crossing paths again at a gallery show and finding a magical moment in Evan's living room dancing to a mix of music that leaps across genres.

Music is a key subtext in this series and their relationship; the drama series is named after a Sade song, and during that private dance party one of the songs they play is Romeo Void's "Never Say Never," a song whose lyrics speak aloud the internal conflict confronting them in that moment:

"I might like you better
If we slept together
But there's somethin'
In your eyes that says
Maybe that's never
Never say never"

For the strapped-down Evan, vinyl is his means of traveling across time and culture, a metaphorical match to Gently's wandering soul; it's established early on that while he attended a fancy university and landed a well-paying white-collar job, she traveled the world.

Nevertheless, in this story that spans eight episodes, each visiting the pair during a pivotal 24-hour period and across a five-year span, there's a nagging question as to whether what these opposites have have found with one another is enough to keep them together for the long haul.

"Cherish the Day" is DuVernay's second series for OWN, which renewed her other drama "Queen Sugar" for a fifth season late last year. But this drama, designed to be an anthology, poses a higher narrative challenge to its creators, in that there are no physical stakes anchoring the story.

What "Cherish" proposes instead is that viewers invest in the relationship itself, and its characters. All television series ask that audiences to some degree, but with "Cherish" success is almost entirely dependent on how engaged a viewer is with whether Gently and Evan will make it. And for some people, that may not be enough of a mystery to remain interested.

DuVernay has pointed out in interviews and press events for the series that depictions of black love and romance – that, and nothing but – are too rare on television, and she's right.  

For that matter it's also a rarity in film; the '90s and early Aughts yielded "Love Jones" and "Love and Basketball" and a few other cinematic romances centered upon black characters, but there haven't been very many since. (Note: Universal is releasing the Issa Rae-LaKeith Stanfield romance "The Photograph" in theaters the same day "High Fidelity" is made available.) And OWN itself was home to one such series quite recently, "Love Is ___," based on the romance and marriage of its creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, and that became a problem when disturbing allegations as well as a lawsuit emerged about Salim Akil that led to that show's cancellation. (Salim Akil has consistently denied all of the allegations within the complaint.)

One hesitates to bring up the circumstances surrounding the demise of "Love Is ___" in a review of "Cherish the Day" – which comes from completely different creators, and while it's also a romance, it's one in which we don't know the ending. But there's a salient point in citing that event, which is that OWN had renewed "Love Is ___" before the personal lives of its creator soured its prospects.

Meaning, regardless of the show's lukewarm reception among critics, it had a enough of an audience to make granting it a second season a worthwhile gamble. And "Cherish the Day" could certainly gain purchase with those viewers.

This being a DuVernay project (with "Queen Sugar" showrunner Tanya Hamilton plotting the course), "Cherish" has the vital bonus of beautiful lighting and cinematic seduction adding to the dreaminess of Evan and Gently's courtship.

These aren't compensating for any lack in its execution elsewhere either, since Roquemore and Miller's chemistry is undeniable – and only outdone, perhaps, by the sweet and enviable relationship between Gently and Luma, a character that Tyson portrays with such priceless verve as to make us all want to Luma in our lives.

But the overwhelming problem of finding love in the modern world has something to do with attention span and an inability to commit – and connecting with "Cherish the Love" requires a commitment. The intriguing aspect of this show is that each hour varies from one to the next, and is part of a chain of events within one love affair. So if one episode leaves the audience with the impression that their short-lived romance is over, the next could change its tune entirely.

Of course, people who aren't interested in the romantic ups and downs of two strangers may lose interest after one episode, which makes me wonder if "Cherish the Day" may be more effective as a streamable series as opposed to one that leaves us hanging between episodes for a week.

Meanwhile "High Fidelity" has the advantage of a familiar title – or is it a disadvantage? That depends on your frame of reference for Hornby's tale. One can never assume that a 20-year-old movie that served as a Gen X cultural touchstone has any meaning whatsoever to Millennials and Gen Z.

Nor is there any grand meaning to the trivia point that Kravitz, who executive produces the series, is the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the 2000 film as Rob's dream girl one night stand – fetchingly named Marie De Salle, no less. He meets the bewitching singer in a local night spot, beds her, and she laughs off his assurance that he'll call her. She's too cool not to know the deal, right?

Except, well, maybe there is some connection in the grander scheme of archetypes between Bonet's Marie De Salle and her daughter's version of Rob by way of a pass through Gillian Flynn's crucifying takedown of the Cool Girl from "Gone Girl" – a woman who, like the gamine or the manic pixie girl, does not truly exist. Or rather, if she does, she is just as easily bruised, vulnerable, and normal as every other person. Kravitz's cool girl is weary. She's over it.

Cusack's Chicago record store owner would have loved to pursue his Brooklyn counterpart, except, of course, she's human and a bit too much like him and they'd drive each other crazy.

But where they find common ground – where all versions of this series meet – is through the idea expressed in book, movie (and actually, in that scene where we see Cusack's Rob and Marie De Salle), and the series: the illusory concept that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like.

That this is Rob's guiding philosophy is the character's obstacle to satisfaction, which plays out differently today than it did 20 years ago. Instead of revealing his soul through action, Movie Rob would rather make compilations and argue over rankings of best songs, best moments, best relationships.

The quirks of Kravitz's Rob are based in an inability to fully connect emotionally, or by embracing the modern age of personalization and branding. She shuns Instagram until, of course, she's drawn to it in order to low-key stalk some quarry. She doesn't really care about catering to customers, fortunately for Cherise and Simon, who mostly show up to work to bask in the joy of music nerddom.

But in today's "High Fidelity" their disputes are less likely to be over the worth of lyric, a bass spank or a bridge than whether the glorious art made by a particular pop god fallen from grace absolves them of any complicity if they sell his record to a customer who wants it. Or, in an early scene that sells Randolph as the show's scene-stealer, if it's excusable for a person to consult an app about a tune playing on a speaker instead of engaging a person who is in the same room. And an expert.

Hulu's "High Fidelity" is probably going to annoy viewers who resent the notion of shoving a woman into a character written to be man on principle. Removing that from the equation, it does spur some insightful ruminations around how much emotional weight we place on music and any cynical stances one might adopt concerning what is verboten. Some of it plays out with the episodes but I was most aware of it within my internal dialogue.

As someone who lived in the Chicago depicted in the 2000 movie (which captured the North Side music scene quite well, even though Hornby originally set the story in London) the type of music snobbery on display is so familiar as to engender an affection for Rob, Barry, and Dick. They were never guys I'd want to spend much time around, let alone date – but they had the best music at their apartment parties! Even so, that judgmental mien can be hardwired inside of a person to the point in one scene, as an attractive Irish crooner delivers an emo cover of a hallowed Boyz II Men classic, I wrinkled my nose at the idea.

Not Rob, Cherise, and Simon – they're utterly mesmerized. And even if, as a viewer, I refused to fully accept their seal of approval, I had very little wiggle room concerning the show's soundtrack choice that follows, Sinead O'Connor's cover of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" – a thoughtful reply to the dismissive purists (entering my guilty plea here) on the part of series music supervisors Manish Raval, Tom Wolfe, and Alison Rosenfeld.

In presenting another Irish singer's cover of a legendary Black artist's ballad, one that stands the test of time they ask, without saying a word, who gets to dictate which of the greatest hits are available to reboot. Their point is that resilient art can withstand a little recycling and visionary flipping, one of the secrets to refreshing our affection.

"High Fidelity" is currently streaming on Hulu.

New episodes of "Cherish the Day" air Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on OWN.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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