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Empire Records Blu-ray Review

Empire Records (1995) movie poster Empire Records

Theatrical Release: September 22, 1995 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: PG-13

Director: Allan Moyle / Writer: Carol Heikkinen

Cast: Anthony LaPaglia (Joe Reaves), Maxwell Caulfield (Rex Manning), Debi Mazar (Jane), Rory Cochrane (Lucas), Johnny Whitworth (A.J.), Robin Tunney (Debra), Ren้e Zellweger (Gina), Ethan Embry (Mark), Coyote Shivers (Berko), Brendan Sexton III (Warren Beatty), Liv Tyler (Corey Mason), James "Kimo" Wills (Eddie), Ben Bode (Mitchell Beck)

Buy Empire Records from Amazon.com: Blu-ray • Remix! Special Fan Edition DVD • Instant Video

April 18th is Record Store Day, a holiday conceived in 2007 as a way to celebrate the unique culture of independent record stores around the country and world.
In recognition of this occasion, observed annually on the third Saturday of April, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment today brings to Blu-ray three films in which music is focal: Singles, Detroit Rock City, and, most befitting the theme, Empire Records, a 1995 movie set almost exclusively inside a record store.

By far the smallest in terms of theatrical performance, Empire Records has grown over the past twenty years to become the best-known and most loved of these three '90s releases. Television and home video are largely responsible for Empire's status; the movie spent just two weeks in 87 theaters in the fall of 1995, selling only around 63,000 tickets and grossing just under $300 thousand amidst poor reviews. It found its audience organically and deservedly because it's a charming comedy perhaps rivaled only by Clueless in its snapshot of '90s teen culture.

Empire Records opens with Lucas (Rory Cochrane) getting to close the shop for the first time. Discovering that the beloved independent store, which opened in 1959, is about to be bought and swallowed up by big chain MusicTown, Lucas takes all of the money from the cash register -- a little more than $9,000 -- to Atlantic City, where he bets it all on a game of craps. Pushing his evidently overflowing luck too far, he loses it all and doesn't have a good explanation for his boss, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), a cool authority figure with a stylish 'do and fashionable earring.

That cash register discrepancy is merely the start of one eventful day at the store. Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), a somewhat washed-up pop star with a predominantly female fanbase, is there to sign copies of his new album. Meanwhile, philosophical Lucas is hardly the only one of the store's teenaged staff to wrestle with turmoil: artistic A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) plans to tell Harvard-bound, secret speed freak Corey (Liv Tyler) he loves her, but can't find the words. The troubled Deb (Robin Tunney) spontaneously shaves her head in the backroom while deflecting questions about her freshly-bandaged wrist. Rounding out the regulars are the slutty cashier Gina (Ren้e Zellweger) and playful pothead Mark (Ethan Embry, still going as Ethan Randall). There's also a young shoplifter (Brandon Sexton III) who says his name is Warren Beatty.

The staff of Empire Records tries to figure out how to keep their independent shop from selling out.

Playing like a period piece today, Empire Records will be quite valuable as reference to future filmmakers looking to recreate '90s teen culture. It will also inspire nostalgia for anyone who spent any of their teenage years in the '90s. The alternative music (The Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket) and fashions (layers, plaid, bared midriffs) are sure to take today's thirtysomethings back to their culturally and socially formative years.

While easy to appreciate on that level, the film is more than just a jolt of reminiscence. This appealing ensemble tale has the feel of a John Hughes movie coming ten years after the writer-director most extensively mined the high school years. Chock-full of memorable dialogue and characters, Empire succeeds on the basis of storytelling. This is the kind of movie you could easily love if you saw it enough times and at the right ages. I can't claim such a strong affinity, for this review marked my first time seeing more than just bits and pieces on television. But I definitely liked the movie and found it endearing.

It is not without some issues. There are some false notes, from the tidy formulaic tied-up ends to most glaringly a memorial service during business hours that gets everybody to spill their hearts. There's a big save-the-store finale which feels completely at odds with the down-to-earth, day-in-the-life-of approach taken up until that point. And yet, there's still enough to the camaraderie and comedy to liken this movie to other landmark adolescent snapshots, like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused.

In one of her first movie roles, Liv Tyler plays Corey Mason, a brainy Harvard-bound employee who's secretly hooked on speed. Seven years before starring in "Chicago", Ren้e Zellweger showcased her singing voice as slutty cashier Gina in a climactic rooftop rock performance.

One can't deny that this fun workplace could only exist in the movies. And only in the '90s; such a store would surely have gone bust by now with declining physical music sales making it impossible to sustain such a large staff even at close to minimum wage.

In Tyler and Zellweger, the movie has two young actresses who would soon go on to greater fame. Most of the other principal cast members have not been as fortunate and accomplished as much. Australia's LaPaglia did achieve some fame and certain financial security as the lead of CBS' long-running Noughties procedural "Without a Trace."
Tunney has resurfaced as a regular on CBS' "The Mentalist." Sexton landed some roles in important millennial dramas Boys Don't Cry and Black Hawk Down. Cochrane was in Argo, though you probably didn't recognize him. Embry has been in a number of movies, from Can't Hardly Wait to Sweet Home Alabama, that will have meaning to those who grew up with them.

On the whole, those in front of the camera of Empire Records have proven more productive than those behind it. Director Allan Moyle, who had previously written and directed the 1990 Christian Slater pirate radio vehicle Pump Up the Volume, has done almost nothing of note in years; he seems to have only rebounded slightly from hitting rock bottom on the 2004 made-for-TV Michael Jackson biopic Man in the Mirror. Lone screenwriter Carol Heikkinen was still in her twenties when Empire Records became her second filmed script, following the country music drama The Thing Called Love (one of River Phoenix's last works). She has only had one theatrical credit since Empire: the somewhat well regarded 2000 ballet academy drama Center Stage.

Apparently, Empire Records was re-edited for its 2008 "Remix! Special Fan Edition" DVD to include 16 minutes of "cool added footage." In news that may dismay some and prompt diehards to hang onto that standard def release, that unrated 107-minute extended cut has not made it to Blu-ray, which only holds the film's original PG-13 theatrical cut.

Empire Records Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (German, Castilian), Dolby Mono 1.0 (Latin American Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, German SDH, Castilian, Latin American Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Deleted Scenes Subtitled
Suggested Retail Price: $19.98
Release Date: April 7, 2015
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Blue Keepcase
Still available as Remix! Special Fan Edition DVD ($5.97 SRP; November 3, 2009) and on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as DVD (May 10, 2005) and in 2-Disc Double Feature DVD with Singles (September 2, 2008)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Many people have this view that comedies don't demand the highest quality picture and sound available to them. Fortunately, Warner doesn't subscribe to this notion. They make Empire Records look its very best on Blu-ray. The sharp, spotless 2.40:1 element hides the fact that this is a 20-year-old movie. (Alas, everything else about the movie cannot.) The perfect video is complemented by an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack, which presents the film's steady flow of music capably and at a volume that is compatible with the crisp dialogue. Dubs and subtitles are offered in four foreign languages.

Among Empire Records' deleted scenes is this chat between Berko (Coyote Shivers) and Rex (Maxwell Caulfield). Rex Maxwell looks swell in his sexy "Say No More" music video. The heavy metal band Gwar looks ridiculous and prehistoric in their "Saddam A Go-Go" music video.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

As on its in-print DVD, Empire Records is joined by three types of bonus features on Blu-ray, each presented in standard definition and within a 4:3 frame unless otherwise noted.

First up are four really rough-looking deleted scenes, which run 7 minutes and 39 seconds. They give us the staff's variation on Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" (covered by The Dirt Clods) referring to things their boss Joe does,
Rex Manning having a chat with the least-developed employee (Coyote Shivers), a tow truck driver confronting Lucas about his Atlantic City trip, and a rock cover of Manning's song performed on the rooftop, in which Manning joins the band before police shut them down. (There is still no sign of Tobey Maguire, who is credited but unseen as one of apparently several characters cut in post-production.)

Next come three music videos produced for the film and partially seen in it. Rex Manning's "Say No More" (3:15) shows Maxwell Caulfield's character performing Robert Palmer-style on a beach in a puffy shirt among glamorous women. Gwar's "Saddam A Go-Go" (2:35) lets the heavy metal band perform in outrageous costumes at a fiery concert clearly achieved by green screen. Then, in his pot brownie-inspired vision, Gwar performs "Vlad the Impaler" live (3:15) with help from Mark (Ethan Embry) on electric guitar.

Empire Records' theatrical trailer establishes its lead characters with rhyming couplets like "A.J. loves Corey (not the whole story)." The colorful oh-so-'90s cover art serves as the Blu-ray's simple menu image as well.

Finally, Empire Records' theatrical trailer (2:25) with its character-defining rhyming couplets and soundtrack touting is preserved in 16:9.

Par for Warner, the basic, silent, static menu simply adapts the cover art to fill the 16:9 frame. The Blu-ray resumes unfinished playback, but does not support bookmarks.

No slipcover or inserts join the blue disc inside the plain keepcase.

Gina (Ren้e Zellweger) and Deb (Robin Tunney) trade barbs while checking inventory in "Empire Records."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Empire Records will resonate most with those who came of age in the 1990s,
but anyone fond of a good generational tale about adolescence ought to appreciate this John Hughes-esque comedy. Warner's Blu-ray mostly satisfies for its fine picture and sound and enjoyable handful of extras. The one potential cause of disappointment is the fact that the disc only offers the original theatrical cut. The 2008 extended version should have been an easy and obvious inclusion via seamless branching.

Buy Empire Records from Amazon.com: Blu-ray / Remix! Special Fan Edition DVD / Instant Video

Buy from Amazon.com

Related Reviews:
1990s Movies: Clueless • Glory Daze • Grosse Pointe Blank • 10 Things I Hate About You • Heavyweights • A Night at the Roxbury
Rory Cochrane: Dazed and Confused • Argo | Liv Tyler: That Thing You Do! • Armageddon • Robot & Frank • Space Station 76
Ethan Embry: All I Want for Christmas • Vacancy • Sweet Home Alabama | Ren้e Zellweger: Chicago • Case 39
New: Singles • The Breakfast Club • Hoop Dreams • To Sir, with Love • The Rewrite

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Reviewed April 7, 2015.



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