Saturday, January 5, 2013

Capsule Film Reviews: Empire Records

John Hughes was not the first writer and sometime director to offer teens a mirror to their lives even if that reflection was filtered through the lens of what Hollywood thought a suffering and angst ridden teen life should look like. Before John Hughes there was 1953's The Wild One and its rebel with a motorcycle (Marlon Brando) looking to rebel against anything life had and there was Nicolas Ray's 1955 tale of a teenager trying to find meaning beyond the parents who just couldn't understand him. (James Dean), Rebel Without a Cause. It was John Hughes, however, who set the template for the modern teen film with his 1984 films Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club and his 1986 film Pretty in Pink and who helped Hollywood realise that there was a huge teen demographic out there in movie going land.

1995's Empire Records directed by Allan Moyne, a Canadian who directed the much better Pump Up the Volume, and written by Carol Heikkinen, a former Phoenix Tower Records employee, might best be termed son of Hughes. Among the employees of its independent record shop are the virgin good girl with a drug problem Corey (Liv Tyler), the goodhearted slut Gina (Renée Zellweger), the troubled punkette (Robin Tunney), the stoner musician wannabee Mark (Ethan Embry), the sensitive art school type A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), the smart guy Lucas (Rory Cochrane), the punk it will always be for the music guy Berko (Coyote Shivers), the acting out kid who just wants to work at the store Warren (Brendan Sexton III), the long haired "real" music nerd Eddie (James 'Kimo' Wills), and the manager Joe, a former drummer who always wonders what if with a heart (Anthony LaPaglia).

The plot of Empire Records begins the night before when Lucas, who is closing the store for the first time that night, discovers that Empire Records is about to be taken over by the corporate giant Musictown and so he takes the money the store has been counting to Atlantic City to try to save the shop. He looses. Over the next work day Empire's employees dance, sing, lip sync, do the mosh, and read rock and pop magazines. Deb goes all Sinéad O'Connor, Cory learns she has been accepted to Harvard, Cory tries to lose her virginity to an aging and fading rock star (Maxwell Caulfield), Gina has sex with Rex, the fading rock star, Eddie rhapsodises about vinyl and the recording history of Eric Clapton, AJ glues quarters to the floor, Lucas stops a shoplifter, and Gina betrays her best friend Cory. By the end of the film all of our record store employees have grown up a bit, find tentative answers to that eternal teen question, what do you want to do with your life, and finally band together, one for all and all for one, becoming a group of brothers and sisters who save the store from a capitalist villain that wants to standardise everything and everyone in the store. They do it all to a John Hughesish soundtrack of "hip", or what Hollywood thinks is "hip", music that includes Gwar, Toad the West Sprocket, The Gin Blossoms, AC/DC, and others. The fairy tale ends when the not as evil as we thought owner of Empire Records, who hates the bohemian atmosphere of the store his father created, promises to sell it cheap to manager Joe. Happy ending. Corporate takeover avoided. The real music lives at least for another day.

Empire Records is a pretty awful film. It is more a disneyfornicated Hollywood rose tinted version of cool teens growing up than a tale about the teens, twentysomethings, and thirtysomethings I knew in the real media stores I worked at in my youth. One thing Empire Records did allow me to do was to take yet another trip down nostalgia lane where I remembered that for many of my teens and twenties in the 70s, including me, music was life rather than a route to empty disneyfornicated celebrity stardom. Wish it was still that way. I give Empire Records one to one and a half stars because at least it kind of tries. By the way, I watched the "Remix! Special Fan Edition" on DVD which puts back sixteen minutes of the forty that were taken out in post production back into the mix. I don't know whether that is a bad thing or an even badder thing.

Empire Records, 1995, Regency, WB, directed by Allan Moyne, written by Carol Heikkinen, 2:35:1

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