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Empire Records

Warner Bros. // PG-13 // April 7, 2015
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted April 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Hard to deny that a lot has changed in the music and media industries since the mid-'90s, where the experience of walking into dedicated stores and seeing rows of stockpiled CDs (and movies and videogames) has largely given way to the age of digital downloads and online vendors. In the wake of big-box retailer closures and defunct brands such as Media Play and Wherehouse Music, indie music stores continue to stick around, a testament to the spirit and culture lying within each brick-and-mortar location. That character is what provides the foundation for Empire Records, where a cluster of eccentric, music-loving employees bond between the walls of a semi-independent record store on the cusp of corporate ownership. Ultimately, it's the sporadic genuineness of the characters and their jam sessions to an invigorating soundtrack that drive this one-location lark, since the events that go down there are too zany and copious to capture a sense of authenticity in such a short timeframe.

Everything within Empire Records occurs in the span of just over a day: a day complicated by the disappearance of the previous night's deposit -- the handiwork of Lucas (Rory Cochrane), a longstanding employee but new night-shift manager -- and the record signing for an aging pop star, Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). News travels between the employees about what happened to the money, as well as what it could mean for manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) and the future of Jersey-based Empire Records, which they discover has been courted for purchase by the Music Town corporation. Some of the employees feel the impact of the day's events more than the others, like soon-to-be Harvard student Corey (Liv Tyler) and her obsession crush on Rex Manning; others go about their business and deal with their own issues between the store's moments of chaos, such as Debra (Robin Tunney) and her newly-shaved head grasping the self-perceived irrelevance of her existence. With stereo-mounted sirens, dancing, and loud tunes in the background, the store scrambles to keep up appearances and support one another with everything going on.

For the most part, it's an endearing host of misfits that fills Empire Records with welcome energy that never dies down, many of whom were given a chance by their boss in spite of their eccentricities. While their stereotypes feed into expectations -- the attractive, conservative bookworm and her slightly-less-attractive, looser friend, Gina (Renee Zellweger); the alt-scene girl and her existential crisis; the artistic guy, A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), stuck in the friend zone with a girl enamored with an adult -- they create a comfort zone of '90s characterization that's both slight and charming through their interactions. Spunky early performances from then-unknown talents, especially from Robin Tunney and Renee Zellweger, elevate the blend of mild humor and drama generated by how these dissimilar characters get along with one another, drudging up parallels in their personalities over common grounds. The humor speaks more to Gen-X nostalgia than getting much in the way of laughs nowadays, especially Lucas' turtlenecked philosophical drivel and Mark's (Ethan Embry) spazzy moshing, but the rapport between the employees gives the film a lighthearted attitude with its own effortless appeal.

While its cast of coming-of-age characters flirt with the twenty-four hour youthful exuberance found in such films as American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused, Empire Records clumps together too many broad issues and individual quirks within the margins of its setting and timespan. Concerns over the record store going corporate, combined with the shoehorned problems introduced by Lucas' wayward loss of the money, would've been enough to draw out the clashing personalities and viewpoints of the employees, but the script from Carol Heikkinen can't restrain itself from overflowing with teen-drama themes, transforming this one shift in the record store into a stage for hesitant proclamations of love, suicide interventions, slutty backstabbing and a dash of Jessie Spano-esque drug abuse. All worthwhile talking points, especially at the time, but there's too much going on to keep up a sense of credibility, with each fracas either tidily resolved or swept under the rug to make way for the next. Don't think too hard about persistent shoplifter "Warren" and his evasion of the long arm of the law, either.

Despite a fierce track listing and superficial moments of rocking out or interrupting music in the store, Empire Records really isn't that concerned with musical expression or culture ... unless, of course, it's to show a sarcastic distaste for the styling of Rex Manning. What it does show an interest in is Empire Records as an entity, preserving its independent, safe-haven quality out of the reach of corporate ownership. Granted, actually saving the record store only steps into the spotlight when it's convenient in the employees' busy schedules of screwing around while on the clock -- literally, in a few cases -- leaving one wondering why they didn't shore up other methods of saving the Empire during Rex Manning Day. They make up for it, though, with last-minute solidarity against "the man" and mustered confidence against odds of all types, ending on a worthwhile note that manages to resonate amid a messy compilation of overcrowded sentiments and impractical story beats. For that, even as it spins further out of date, it's not hard to get why Empire Records lingers in cult circles as a feisty artifact of the era.

The Blu-ray:

For a long time, fans of Empire Records have followed a pretty standard formula for the home-video release of the film: grab the DVD with the white-background version of the poster for the theatrical cut, and the swirly-blue background version for the longer ReMix! Special Fan Edition. Warner Bros. have thrown a kink in that thinking for the Blu-ray release, though, as this swirly-blue covered Blu-ray -- which doesn't have the stamped "fan edition" text on the front -- contains the theatrical cut of the film, running a few seconds north of 90 minutes (1:30:05) instead of the 107 minutes of the special edition.

Video and Audio:

Empire Records clocks in with a 2:35-1 framed, 1080p AVC transfer of Walt Lloyd's 35mm cinematography, which often captures a wealth of color and detail scattered across the record store. When it comes to the palette, there's little debate in its quality. Skin tones are appropriately warm or reddish in response to the lighting, neon strips and bursts of vivid shades on posters are strikingly vivid yet respectful to their boundaries, and gradation shifts in metal and stone walls are natural and satisfying. Contrast, too, frequently looks fantastic, keeping details visible in appropriate shades and rays of light under control; fleeting moments of black-level crush, especially in Lucas' turtleneck, do occasionally crop up. Discussing the caliber of detail is a tad trickier: many scenes exhibit impressive fine detail in garments and other textures -- weaves and folds in clothing, links in jewelry, ripples in glossy-printed standups, leopard spots in the couch, brushstrokes in wall art, strands of hair -- while other scenes display hazier, out-of-focus shots that are much lower in noteworthy clarity. As a whole, the result, coupled with a satisfying veil of grain, is a flawed but ultimately pleasing treatment with an organic film appearance.

The soundtrack for Empire Records is just about as important as the film's dialogue and sound effects, so it's a good thing that this DTS-HD Master Audio track does them both justice, where the various tunes frequently outshine the other sound elements. The thump of fast-paced drums frequently dominates the track, pouring out clean as a whistle against accompanying vocals and guitars of different tempos. Subtle touches of sound effects add intimacy to the track -- the scattering of CD cases on pavement, the splashing of water on someone's face, the echo of a voice over a PA system -- which it takes care in allowing those bits to occupy the proper spread across the front channels. Dialogue typically has the slimness and twang of a smaller film with twenty years under its belt, even though a few moments of verbal clarity are impressively sharp, and there's not a ton of surround activity outside the soundtrack, though cheering crowds and gunshot sounds slip to the back channels for a few moments to shine. In all, Empire Records delivers a brisk, consistent, and satisfying aural experience. English, French, German, and Spanish subs and language tracks are available.

Special Features:

Those with the Remix Special Fan Edition might want to hang onto those DVDs for the added material, though, as the Blu-ray only comes equipped with four Deleted Scenes (7:39 4x3 Letterbox). Warner Bros. have also thrown in three Music Videos (4x3 Letterbox) -- Rex Manning's "Say No More"; Gwar's "Sadam a Go-Go" (2:35) and "Vlad the Impaler (3:15) -- and a vintage Theatrical Trailer (2:25, 16x9) for good measure.

Final Thoughts:

Setting aside the quotes involving Lucas' deliberately overconfident pondering and the jests about Rex Manning Day, both of which have been puffed up in typical cult-classic fashion since the '90s, what you're left with in Empire Records is a cluttered, overstated teen comedy-drama that's compensated by an oddball family of characters, a strong soundtrack, and a proud indie-record store spirit. Reality gets elevated too far in a busy collage of personal conflicts, which struggle to coexist with the film's primary story about the big-label takeover of the local record store. There's nothing but good intentions coursing through it, though, and it ultimately mixes together into a bearable piece of '90s fluff that's worth watching for the future talents involved in creating the store's effervescent atmosphere. Warner Bros.' Blu-ray looks decent and sound great, but only a few deleted scenes and music videos fill out the special features. Some will be fine giving this a rental for an evening of nostalgia, but fans will want to snap this up for the boost in audiovisual quality and the availability of the theatrical cut. Mildly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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