Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Empire Records (1995)
Studio Line: 20th Century Fox - They're selling music but not selling out.

The director of Pump Up The Volume cranks it up another notch with this comedy about an eventful day in the lives of the young slackers, doers and dreamers who work at the bustling store called Empire Records.

"This music is the glue of the world," one of Empire's clerks says. "It holds it all together." Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Evan Dando, Better Than Ezra and more hot alternative rock underscores virtually every scene.

Anthony LaPaglia (The Client) plays the coping manager of a staff played by Liv Tyler (Armageddon), Renee Zellweger (Jerry Maguire), Rory Cochrane (Dazed and Confused) and more fresh talents.

Director: Allan Moyle
Cast: Anthony LaPaglia, Maxwell Caulfield, Debi Mazar, Rory Cochrane, Johnny Whitworth, Robin Tunney, Renee Zellweger, Ethan Embry, Liv Tyler
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French DD 5.1; subtitles English, Spanish, French, Portuguese; closed-captioned; single sided - single layered; 28 chapters; rated PG-13; 91 min.; $19.98; street date 4/3/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailer; Cast/Filmmaker Profiles.
Purchase: DVD | Score soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B+/D-

As a theatrical release, I have virtually no recollection of Empire Records. Apparently it hit screens in 1995, but it slipped under my radar screen. I guess I had a lot of company; according to IMDB, the movie only grossed $300,000. Man, I didnít even know it was still possible for a film to make that little money these days!

Despite its insanely-poor theatrical showing, Empire Records developed a minor following, and I can definitely recall seeing its then-hot soundtrack featured prominently at many record stores. Why do I still remember the sight of a CD for an obscure flick? Three words: Liv Tylerís sweater.

Iím not sure I even knew who Tyler was in 1995, though I may have heard of her due to her famous father. Nonetheless, if I wasnít aware of her existence, the poster art for ER announced her in a big way. As you can see at the top of this page, Tyler sports a sexy blue cut-off sweater, and she wears it well. Nuts to the rest of the cast - that sweater should have gotten top billing!

Since ER takes place in a record store, I didnít expect much additional heat from Tyler during the movie. However, I was radically off-base in that assumption. Tylerís character Corey plans to lose her virginity with Rex Manning, (Maxwell Caulfield), a faded pop star set to sign autographs at Empire. As she psychs herself up to seduce him, Tyler manifests some extremely hot - though not pornographic - self-touching, and when she gets alone with Manning, she provides additional suggestive movements and eventually strips down to her underwear.

Mama, who needs Viagra when Iíve got Liv in all her sultry glory? The rest of Empire Records could have featured cows munching on grass - Iíd still support the film due to these amazing scenes. Actual nude sex scenes would have trouble matching the heat found in Livís gyrations; that sweater makes a better partner than any guy ever could be.

Since I donít want the Movie Guide to be mistaken for a porno site, Iíll move on now, at least in prose; my thoughts remain on Liv and The Sweater. Empire Records offers a light ďday in the lifeĒ comedy in the briefly-lived ďslackerĒ vein. This follows the short string of early and mid-Nineties flicks that featured grunge-rock loving teens. Although I wasnít in my teens at the time, I still loved the grunge movement; it was the first - and last - time in quite some years that the music charts were dominated by some solid guitar rock. As I peruse the current listings, the predominance of bubblegum pop and repetitive rap makes me even more nostalgic for those flannel-oriented days.

Empire Records takes place mainly during a one-day period at the eponymous store. During the prior night, smart-alecky employee Lucas (Rory Cochrane) abuses the trust given to him by manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia). When Lucas discovers that ER is to be sold to a mega-chain of stores, he takes the dayís $9000 earnings and cruises to Atlantic City. Unsurprisingly, he loses the wad of cash in a casino and thus starts the following day with a problem.

Actually, pretty much everybody in Empire Records has a problem. Lucas is a crook. Joe lies to the owner to hide Lucasí theft. Corey wants to bang a washed-up pop star. Rex is a washed-up pop star forced to sign autographs to facilitate a comeback. Jane (Debi Mazar) is even lower on the food chain: sheís the assistant to the washed-up pop star. Flirty Gina (Renee Zellweger) is a slut, and riot grrl Debra (Robin Tunney) wants to kill herself. A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) loves Corey, and heís given himself until 1:37 PM to tell her this. Warren (Brendan Sexton III) is a shoplifter who returns to haunt the ER crew.

Only Mark (Ethan Embry) fails to manifest a concern; his biggest worry is what to name the band he wants to start. Otherwise, the store is just a roiling hotbed of problems that grow to consume all of our characters.

Itís all too much for the flimsy film to take. As such, although the movie starts well and offers some frisky fun for a while - the opening scenes that focus on Lucas are especially brisk and entertaining - midway through the flick it makes an abrupt turn from slacker comedy to dull soap opera. All of the problems that had lurked in the background are suddenly thrust to the forefront, and the movie slams to a halt as we have to slowly work through all of the different concerns.

Not only does this aspect of the film make it less than fun to watch for the last third or so, but it also means that ER loses any sense of realism. Granted, Iím not sure how true-to-life the piece was ever meant to be. ER works with a weird variety of stylistic choices. During Lucasí trip to Atlantic City, the movie offers a fantasy tone that makes him out to be magically lucky - until he loses his final bet, of course. At times, characters also break the ďfourth wallĒ to speak directly to the camera. This occurs for little apparent reason other than to be different; unfortunately, it just makes the movie confusing.

Probably the most notable aspect of ER stems from the later prominence achieved by some of its actors. In 1995, the closest thing to ďnamesĒ it offered were LaPaglia and Mazar, and they werenít exactly household words. Caulfield was - and is - best known for his role in the 1982 debacle that was Grease 2. The others were virtual unknowns at the time.

Actually, most of them still are, but Tyler and Zellweger have been quite successful, and Tunney has cropped up in some moderately-prominent projects like Supernova, The Craft, and End of Days. ERís most upsetting scene: when the sexy Tunney shaves her head early in the film. Debra wasnít the only one feeling suicidal at that time!

Happily, Tyler and her sweater made me want to live. As a whole, Empire Records was a moderately entertaining film at best. Itís inconsistently-paced and could be somewhat amateurish at times. Still, itís fun to see some actors in their early work, and the overall project is compelling enough to merit a look.

The DVD:

Empire Records appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While not without a few problems, as a whole I thought the movie looked quite good and usually seemed pretty impressive for such a low-budget offering.

Sharpness usually appeared nicely crisp and detailed. On a few occasions, some mild softness interfered, but these instances were rare. For the most part, the picture came across as well-defined and distinct. Moirť effects cropped up at times due to usual suspects such as blinds, but I detected no signs of jagged edges. Print flaws were surprisingly heavy for such a recent film, mainly in the form of white speckles. Those tiny spots popped up throughout the movie, and while they werenít a massive concern, they definitely became a distraction. Otherwise, I noted some modest grain at times, but the rest of the film seemed free from defects.

Colors were terrific for the most part. The record store setting offered a nice variety of hues, and these tones came across with fine clarity and brilliance. All throughout the movie I saw wonderfully bright and vivid colors, as the DVD reproduced the hues accurately. Black levels seemed deep and rich, while shadow detail was appropriately heavy but not excessively thick. The preponderance of print flaws dragged my picture grade down to a ďBĒ, but I still found the image of Empire Records to provide a very satisfying experience.

Also solid - in a modest way - was the filmís Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Not surprisingly, the emphasis is on music, and the soundfield strongly concentrated on the movieís variety of then-contemporary rock tunes. These displayed fine stereo imaging in the front speakers, with good use of all through forward channels. Music also showed reinforcement in the rears that buoyed them to a nice degree but didnít become tremendously involving. Otherwise, the soundfield provided modest breadth to effects, but I didnít hear anything special. Some minor panning occurred, and when the storeís employees spoke on the shopís loudspeaker system, the audio took over the spectrum well, but this wasnít an effects-happy flick. As such, the music-oriented soundfield seemed very satisfying.

Audio quality appeared fine. Dialogue was natural and distinct, with no edginess or problems related to intelligibility. The few effects I heard seemed clear and realistic, and they showed no signs of distortion. Most importantly, the music was crisp and bright, and the songs displayed pretty solid dynamic range. Highs were clean, and bass seemed reasonably deep, though I felt the low end could have been a little stronger. Nonetheless, the soundtrack for Empire Records more than adequately suited the material.

Less satisfying are the DVDís supplements. All we find are the movieís theatrical trailer and some decent biographies that appear within the ďCast and CrewĒ area. Minor listings for actors Anthony LaPaglia, Debi Mazar, Liv Tyler, Maxwell Caulfield, Rory Cochrane and Renee Zellweger show up here. Despite the sectionís name, there are no entries for any crew members.

Nor is there a listing for the true star of Empire Records, Liv Tylerís cut-off sweater. As a whole, the movie was a moderately entertaining piece, but it really took off when we got to see Liv interact with her sweater. Otherwise, the film seemed watchable but unspectacular. The DVD offers pretty solid picture and sound but skimps on extras. My recommendation depends wholly on your interest in Liv Tyler. If you donít care about her, then Empire Records may not hold much for you; itís a fun but thin slacker comedy. However, if you find Liv to be even slightly attractive, run- donít walk - to get a copy of this disc. You can thank me later.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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