Empire Records (1995)

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. It is a historical area right by the Chesapeake Bay nestled in between Little Italy and industrial Canton. I was down there a lot because I was constantly running light and soundboards at a community theater down there. Before I could drive, I often had to wait for a ride at the end of the night and I also got dropped off early. One of the places I spent time at was a store right near the water called The Sound Garden (not to be confused with Soundgarden). I remember endlessly walking through and looking at the actual records, tapes, and CDs. At that point, I was mostly buying CDs because they were the best quality at a size I could carry in my backpack. I browsed a lot but I did purchase plenty. If I remember correctly, this was where I bought the first and second Queen Greatest Hits albums. It is also where I discovered The Who on my own terms. Most importantly, it was where I bought a Mary Prankster album which was a local band at the time and it is a band I still adore.

When I was younger, I adored record stores the same way that I adore bookstores and comic book stores. While I never liked the social aspects of in-person shopping, I love browsing. I love getting absorbed into the potential of decisions. I remember fondly a record store that was in the Rotunda which was in walking distance from the house I grew up in. I used to walk there on the same trips that I walked to the comic book store, which was a little farther. Eventually, they were in the same place. I remember specific purchases. I remember the very first album I bought with my own money on my own was an Aerosmith Greatest Hits album. I remember the clerk smiled at my purchase and recommended that I “play it loud, man”. It made me feel like an adult and a peer. Earlier than that, the first album I ever had which belonged to me was Metallica And Justice for All… and my parents graciously let me play it in the car even though it was not their scene. I remember buying a Guess Who album in Towson. When I was really little, I remember my friend buying an MC Hammer album while I bought a Vanilla Ice album. We spent time bootlegging the cassettes for each other.

When I first saw a blurb on this movie, I saw it described as High Fidelity meets You’ve Got Mail. This is all wrong. This is somebody who just skimmed the synopsis and called it a day. Sure, it has elements of those two movies but it feels like neither of those movies to me. Both of those movies are romantic comedies to varying degrees. Empire Records is definitely not a romantic comedy. There is a romantic subplot but it far from being the actual focus of the movie. If I were to pick two movies that this movie is similar to, they would be The Breakfast Club and Clerks. The movie was an ensemble piece about a bunch of kids who work at a record store and their adult boss. They have a lot of fun, they get deep, they basically go through group therapy, and they get better than they started. A lot of it felt like the famous dancing scene from The Breakfast Club. There is a lot of high energy that shifts easily between angry and happy. I really appreciated the sense of humor the movie had. Everybody is comfortable with getting silly or sarcastic and everybody looks like they are really having fun. When things get deep, it hurts but it feels so relatable.

The sort of core of the movie is the boss of the record store played by Anthony Lapaglia as the only sane adult who is happy to let the kids play because the customers have fun with it. Liv Tyler plays the perfect, book smart girl who is about to go to Harvard. I knew girls like her in high school. Renee Zellweger plays her flirty, sexy best friend and she is a lot of fun which covers up a deeper pain. There is also Johnny Whitworth who plays the dreamy artist guy. Ethan Embry plays the loveable stoner screw up that we all knew back in high school and college years (or maybe still know). Rory Cochrane plays the odd zen and existential guy who I also knew in high school. My favorite is Robin Tunney who plays the punk girl who is sick and tired of the world, kind of goth and kind of metal too. Maxwell Caulfield plays an aging new wave musician who comes to the store for a signing. There are plenty of other great small roles but those are the main important ones. I really loved this cast and each scene was basically an excuse for them all to interact and either riff with each other or have deep, meaningful conversations.

Overall, I really loved this movie. I did not expect to be writing that on this review. The movie was scene after scene of relatable white teenage drama without getting too cheesy or over the top (at least not in a bad way). The movie also felt like a lot of good stories about mental health awareness and how our friends can be dealing with stuff that we don’t see. It also has a great eclectic soundtrack which makes sense since it is set in an independent record store. For one, I never expected to hear GWAR on a soundtrack especially not one that also has the Gin Blossoms on it. The fake new wave music video is priceless. I was also pleasantly surprised by Renee Zellweger’s rock and roll singing voice.

(Written on 4/2/19)

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