What is it?
The plot is of the “David beats Goliath” variety, with the store manager (a surprisingly hip looking Anthony LaPaglia) and collection of his employees (Liv Tyler, Ethan Embry, Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney) rising up to prevent a large music chain from purchasing their independent record store.
Why is it underrated?
Some six years ago, Chuck Klosterman (then of Spin magazine) wrote a column around the release of a DVD that was a collection of R.E.M. videos called Parallel. In addition to his usual insight, Klosterman provided an aside that became the conclusion of the article and also made what would have been a pretty prosaic review of R.E.M.’s early ‘90s music video canon into something of a memorable piece.
Regarding the video for the song “Star 69,” he wrote that it blew his mind that “the idea that there was a period when the *69 automatic callback function of the telephone was so significant that R.E.M. could write a song about it.” He goes on to say how caller ID has forever thwarted the would-be prank phone call artist (which would have made the Jerky Boys sadly irrelevant then) and made the *69 function as consigned to history as the leisure suit or Luke Perry. Its whole lifecycle is encapsulated in a pretty run-of-the-mill 3 minute song.
All of that was meant to help illustrate the point that Empire Records functions the same way for the large record store. iTunes and the digital music revolution, which were a scant 4-5 years off when the film was released, have completely obliterated the “point” of this movie, so much so that I could see a kid born today in 10 years saying, “Wait a minute, you actually had to go to a store to buy your music?” Even today, when was the last time that you walked into a big music store to do anything other than look? In the last two years, both Tower Records (a virtually mainstay of my late high school youth) and Virgin Megastore have completely shuttered their operations.
For someone with a bent for nostalgia, that’s what makes Empire Records a compelling movie. In that sense, it’s as great as Saturday Night Fever (though, in addition to that being the only time that sentence has ever been written, that’s the only way in which they’re similar). It recalls that time in your life when you were sitting around with your friends, talking about what to do that night and after a couple of hours, one of you said, “Fuck, man, let’s just go to (insert store here) and check out the new records.”
The movie itself? It’s all right. There are parts that are an absolute laughable mess. The screaming fight between Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger, where Liv calls Renee a slut and Renee exposes Liv’s secret amphetamine habit ranks up there with the all time laugh out loud confrontation scenes, like when the redheaded kid screams at Patrick Dempsey about shitting on his house in Can’t Buy Me Love or every scene in Pineapple Express.
For a long time, it was mistakenly classified as a direct-to-video movie, which isn’t true. It had a very limited theatrical run in the Fall of 1995, grossing roughly $275,000 in 2 weeks. But to be fair, “limited” in this case means 87 screens, which is roughly how many the multiplex on the corner has in one place these days. To be fair, a wider release in this instance might not have meant a huge box office score (the movie obviously tested poorly enough to limit its release), but it wouldn’t have hurt.
It’s got a pretty killer soundtrack, as far as movie soundtracks (do they even release movie soundtracks anymore?) go. The Gin Blossoms, the early 1990s most ubiquitous rock band, chip in “’Till I Hear It From You,” a song that reached #9 on the Billboard 200. Outside of them, there’s some pretty solid 1990s talent on here: Cracker, Evan Dando, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, The Cranberries.
And seriously, Anthony LaPaglia might be one of the more underrecognized actors of his generation. He’s not DeNiro or anything, but the guy gives a solid performance in everything he does. He’s memorable in So I Married An Axe Murderer and he was one of the few standouts in Steve Martin’s bust Mixed Nuts.
And what else? How about Renee Zellweger at her apex, rocking out to Coyote Shivers’ Sugarhigh in the film’s closing scene? And while Renee’s apex might be Kristen Bell’s valley, it’s worth the price of admission.
Oh, Father, Where Art Thou?
Until she was 11 years old, Liv Tyler thought that her father was Todd Rundgren (and actually went by the name “Liv Rundgren.”) Her mother is former Playboy playmate Bebe Buell, and Buell lived with Todd Rundgren from 1972-78 (including the first year of Liv’s life).
Buell was also married to Coyote Shivers from 1992-99, making him Liv’s stepfather during filming.