Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) runs Empire Records, an independent Delaware store that employs a tight-knit group of music-savvy youths. Hearing that the shop may be sold to a big chain, slacker employee Lucas (Rory Cochrane) bets a chunk of the store's money, hoping to get a big return. When this plan fails, Empire Records falls into serious trouble, and the various other clerks, including lovely Corey (Liv Tyler) and gloomy Deb (Robin Tunney), must deal with the problem, among many other issues.
Like many who came of age in the 90s, I've looked back on 'Empire Records' with fondness. At the time, it won me over by capturing the spirit of adolescence in which I and many of my friends found ourselves. The pop alternative soundtrack that accompanied helped it obtain a genuine sense of the mid-90s. Having said that, watching it now as an adult, I've realized that it's lacking the sincere qualities found in its contemporaries (like 'Singles'). Sure, the music is still enjoyable and there's plenty of nostalgia to be found in its ensemble coming-of-age story – but it certainly isn't anything special.
As I re-watched 20-year-old movie – mind you, more than a decade after having seen it last – it finally hit me that 'Empire Records' is nothing more than a messy 90s rip-off of the 80s John Hughs classic 'The Breakfast Club.' The character types and dichotomies are still there: there's the rebel, the weirdo, the girl with social problems, the kid with a messed up life, the seemingly perfect girl with secret, the guy who likes the girl, the one who's technically not supposed to leave the area, and so on. In their single day together, we even get little scenes throughout where they all make amends, come to terms with something internally and ultimately realize that they're all BFFs. The differences between the two movies are physical setting, decade, and obviously, filmmaking quality.
This jumbled movie kicks off with a late-night intro where Empire Records employee Lucas (Rory Cochrane) is entrusted to close the shop. As he settles the day's bookkeeping, he stumbles across a few notes that leak the fact that the owners of this unique music shop are about to sell to an evil nationwide franchise competitor. Assuming that the only reason for the sale is due to the "mom and pop" shop's light profit, he takes everything in the safe and heads to Atlantic City where, of course, loses it gambling. Lucas' intentions of multiplying the cash assets and saving the business are good, but he blows it.
Cut to the next morning. The store's manager, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), arrives to find the cash missing. Knowing that Lucas was capable of doing something stupid, he gives Lucas the benefit of the doubt and waits for him to show up for his shift and offer answers. Although some aren't scheduled to work until the afternoon, the whole staff arrives early on this special day. Why? Because it's "Rex Manning Day." Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) is a washed-up pop star who will be doing an appearance/signing at Empire Records. While his music is definitely dead in the eyes of the youth, one employee has planned for this day her entire life. Corey (Liv Tyler) has been waiting for this day so that she could lose her virginity to the Rex, but as much as she has dreamed of and planned for this day, nothing can prepare her for how it's going to change her relationship with her slutty best friend Gina (Renee Zellweger).
Co-workers A.J. and Debra also have big plans for this day. Quiet artist A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) has determined to make this the day that he finally confesses his undying love for Corey. At a specific time, no matter what, he's going to tell her. Debra, on the other hand, after a failed suicide attempt the day before, has decided to set things straight and be as bold as ever. Without holding back, she is going to say everything (usually negative things) that's on her mind.
But two people don't have plans for the day. Being a young metal-loving moshing machine, Mark (Ethan Embry) is always up for anything. His character really has no weight in the entire movie. And after Lucas' stupid actions the night before, without a single idea on how to save the day, Joe is speechless. Even after Lucas breaks the honest truth behind the missing cash, Joe doesn't know whether to punch him out or call the police. Everything is up in the air – but no matter whether this group of co-workers has planned for it or not, this day is certainly going to show them who they are, what they're made of and what they're capable of.
While revisiting 'Empire Records,' I realized that it's an exceptionally jumbled movie. For example, Rex Manning day decorations are set up and the appearance of the store shows it – yet some scenes are oddly missing the décor. I can only assume that the many continuity errors – which are just as evident in the movie's appearance as they are in story and tone – were caused by the studio's supposed hack-job given to the final cut of the movie. Many sites report that the studio disliked the movie, removed more than 30 minutes of footage and completely re-cut the narrative. It is said that central characters and plot-points were chopped and the narrative's two-day story was merged to give the appearance of happening over a single day. An oddity supporting these rumors is Tobey Maguire's name showing up in the closing credits despite him being nowhere in the movie.
If you remember 'Empire Records' with fondness, even though this Blu-ray features a decent transfer, I recommend not re-watching it. The nostalgia will be taken from you as you come to realize that there's truly nothing special about the screenplay or story. "Damn the man" and keep your bliss through ignorance.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. has given the theatrical cut of 'Empire Records' a mild high-definition transfer to a BD-25. (If you remember, a "Remix" extended edition was released on DVD – but that version is not available on Blu-ray at this time.) The disc is housed in a standard blue Elite keepcase with artwork that faithfully matches the original release. The only thing to play before the disc's silent and static main menu is a Warner Bros. vanity reel.
'Empire Records' has received a nice little 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's actually much strong than those of most 20-year-old movies. Aside from the occasional mildly out-of-focus camera shot, fine details are typically present. The tighter camera shots reveal great details in skin textures and clothing. You will notice the pores and imperfections in the actors' facial features, as well as the individual fibers lifting off the shoulders of Liv Tyler's sweater.
Black levels are good, but could have been better. Should-be blacks occasionally appear washed out and slightly gray. Colors are vibrant, bright and very pleasing to the eye. They're slightly larger than life, but never dabble in over-saturation.
A slight amount of grain can be seen throughout the movie. The transfer is sharp and clear enough that edge enhancement and DNR were not needed. Bands, artifacts and aliasing are not an issue.
While 'Empire Records' carries a promising 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that's completely void of clicks, hiss, thumps or warbling. it certainly doesn't meet its potential. Instead of dynamically putting to use all channels – which is exactly what you'd expect from a 5.1 mix – it's instead extremely front-heavy. The movie's iconic '90s soundtrack is the only aspect of the mix to make use of the surround channels, but even then, the volume of the surround speakers is very low compared to the front end. The effects have plenty of room to shine, but they too are almost entirely confined to the front and much too quiet when they're mixed to the surround speakers.
The vocal track is mostly good. Despite the overall forward feel, the voices don't come across as flat or stagnant. There's range to them, but it backfires on one occasion. During a girl-on-girl screaming match in the sixty-second minute of the movie, the levels are so high that the audio gets blown out and distorted.
The 'Empire Records' Blu-ray contains the same special features as the "Remix: Special Fan Edition," only without the 16 minutes of additional footage that were integrated into that cut of the movie. That additional footage it nowhere to be found on this disc.
An odd part of growing up is coming to the realization that some things aren't as good as you remember them being, that sometimes nostalgia is stronger than the real thing. I didn't think it would be, but for me, 'Empire Records' is one of those things better left in the past. Memory lead me to believe that it was a fun four-star tale infused with 90s pop culture, but reality now shows that it's a jumbled three-star shameless 'Breakfast Club' knock-off. The video quality of this transfer isn't half bad, but the sound is. The few special features included lack quality. In high-definition or not, I wish that I hadn't revisited 'Empire Records' and recommend that, unless you're a major fan, you leave this in the past.