If you liked the popular music of the eighties and nineties, "Empire Records" may be right up your Tin Pan Alley. Personally, I find most of the pop-rock music of that era mundane and repetitive, but, then, I'm a fogey so what do I know.
While the movie was hardly a smash success when it was released to theaters in 1995, it has since picked up a minor cult following thanks to video. As a result, Warner Brothers have re-released it on DVD in a new Special Fan Edition called "Empire Records Remix!," which adds about sixteen more minutes of footage to the film. Interestingly, while the original rating was PG-13, the film is now classified as "Not Rated." I assume this is because the "Remix" was never resubmitted to the ratings board, not because there is anything offensive about the additional material.
In the film, Empire Records is a small, independent record store about to be gobbled up by a big record-store chain, Music Town. The movie recounts a day in the life of the store during the week before the big takeover, presenting a series of seriocomic vignettes that are neither very serious nor very comic. But the film does have its few affecting moments, and everything is done so earnestly it's hard to knock it too hard.
The movie stars a shop-load of top names going nowhere. Chief among them is Anthony LaPaglia as Joe Reaves, the store's manager and the only semblance of maturity in the picture. He's a kind of father figure to his youthful employees, who comprise the bulk of the cast. The interrelationships of these largely maladjusted young clerks make up the story.
Let me describe a few of the cast members and you'll get the idea. The character we meet first is Lucas (Rory Cochrane), a goofy clerk who has just stolen and gambled away a day's store receipts in the hope of raising enough money to keep the place from falling into the hands of the evil Music Town. We trust he's got something more up his sleeve than the zombielike expression he wears as he admits his crime and is confined to a sofa for the duration of the story. We figure he's either a Zen master or an idiot.
Then, there's A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), who's in love with another clerk, Corey, and wants to go to art school. Corey (Liv Tyler) is Miss Perfect, who's in love with a has-been rock star and has just been accepted to Harvard. Miss Tyler's major contribution to the film is exposing her bare midriff. Next is Gina (Renee Zellweger), a promiscuous clerk with a penchant for short skirts. Zellweger is her usual effervescent self until the end, when things turn more weighty. After her we have Debra (Robin Tunney), a manic-depressive punker who has recently tried to commit suicide, and Berko (Coyote Shivers), Debra's sometime boyfriend. Then, there's Mark (Ethan Embry, credited as Ethan Randall), a really dumb clerk into heavy metal; Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), the aforementioned over-the-hill rock star; Jane (Debi Mazar), Rex's personal assistant; Eddie (James 'Kimo' Wills), another clerk; Warren (Brendan Sexton), a young shoplifter; and Mitchell (Ben Bode), the store's uptight owner.
Most of the movie's success must be attributed to the musical excerpts continuously playing in the background and to the total sincerity of the cast, who give their all to a script that gives none of them much in return. The problem with a cast so large and so stereotyped is that no one gets much attention; things just move quickly from one person's conflicts to another, with little momentum or feeling of satisfaction.
Nonetheless, the film does attain a sense of purpose by its predictable, inevitable end, a conclusion so sweet it may win over a few diehard antagonists. Unfortunately, one has to endure the rather tedious first half of the film to reach the finale, and this may be too taxing for many viewers.
For those interested in such things, some of the musical groups heard on the soundtrack include Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Evan Dando, Better Than Ezra, Throwing Muses, Full Tilt Gonzo, Poster Children, Daniel Johnston, Edwyn Collins, The Dirt Clods, The Cruel Sea, Ape Hangers, Peg Boy, Please, The Buggles, Noah Stone, The Meices, Fig Dish, Fitz of Depression, GWAN, Quicksand, Ass Ponys, Sacrilicious, Real, Sponge, Dishwalla, Angus Young, Dire Straits, Drill, Sponge, Adolescents, Coyote Shivers, Lustre, and the Martinis.
Among the tunes heard playing in the store are "The Honeymoon Is Over," "I Don't Want to Live Today," "Seems," "Say No More (Mon Amour)," "Free," "I Shot the Devil," "Money," "Video Killed the Radio Star," "Ready Steady Go," "If You Want Blood," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Ballad of El Goodo," "Snakeface," "How," "A Girl Like You," "Plowed," "Sugarhigh," "Til I Hear It From You," "This Is the Day," and what seems like a hundred more.
I'd be willing to bet that most of the groups and songs on the soundtrack will be forgotten in another few years, if they're not forgotten already, making the film a kind of museum curiosity piece at best. One of the movie's characters remarks that "Without rock music, life would be meaningless." Perhaps, and as the music fades into obscurity, this movie becomes largely meaningless.
No complaints about the picture quality. Its colors are deep and dark, maybe a little too dark, with daylight scenes beautifully rendered and beautifully delineated. This "darkness" does not allow for the very best detail in some areas of the screen, but it's not a serious concern. No grain, pixilation, moiré effects, shimmering lines, halos, or other digital artifacts can be found in a generous widescreen, anamorphic ratio that measures 2.13:1 across a normal television.
Not much to report on here. Supposedly, the sound has been remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1, but since most of the soundtrack is made up of music originally recorded in two-channel stereo, it doesn't mean a lot. What we get is some good musical ambience reinforcement from the surround channels and a few store noises. Occasionally, one can discern a voice or two coming from the rear or sides of the room. Otherwise, it's good, clean, clear audio reproduction across the front speakers.
There are a few extra items on the disc, but mostly the "Special Fan Edition" designation refers to the extra footage included in the film. Among the bonus items are four fuzzy, distorted deleted scenes and a series of cast biographies and filmographies. Then there are three music videos: Rex Manning: "Say No More"; GWAR: "Saddam a Go-Go"; and GWAR again: "Vlad the Impaler" live. The bonuses conclude with twenty-eight scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English is the only spoken language offered, but English, French, and Spanish are provided for subtitles.
"Empire Records," remixed or not, is the kind of experience that works best as a soundtrack album. Listening to the music, for what little it's worth, is easier than having to sit through the blandness of most of the movie. With a cast so large and talented doing so little, watching the film more than once seems a waste of time. If you like the music, better to just listen to it.