Sacred Cows: Empire Records

by Jay Stringer

Sacred Cows is something a bit different. I’m not here to tell you why a bad film hasn’t worked, or why a good film has tickled my fancy. This is a chance to defend a film that’s been unfairly written off, or to poke a few holes in a film that needs to be brought down a peg.

I think EMPIRE RECORDS must be one of those films you had to see at the time. Or at the very least, you had to see it when you were fifteen. For the record (you see what I did there) I was fifteen when the film came out, but it was the same year that I got to see LEON and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, so EMPIRE RECORDS might not have had a chance.

But lots of my friends love the film. About ten years ago I had a short attempt at being a film student, and made a lot of shorts in my spare time. EMPIRE RECORDS was used as a buzz word with many of the people I worked with; a quick way of saying something would be ‘cool’ or ‘funny.’ I built up a film in my head based on what others said. It was something that was half Kevin Smith and half Quentin Tarantino. It was full of razor sharp dialogue, interesting characters, and a better soundtrack than GROSSE POINT BLANK.

I suppose in retrospect the film never stood a chance. I was always going to be disappointed by it compared to the idea I had in my head. But when the time came, and I finally sat down to watch the film everyone seemed to love; I struggled to get through it.

Think back to when you were a school or college. There would always be a few cool kids. I mean really cool, interesting, self-assured. They didn’t have to prove anything, or say anything. They were just cool. Then you had the drama students. Kids who would run around in funny clothes, wearing their craziness on their sleeves and demanding that you knew how hip, kooky and cool they were. That’s how I see this film. It’s like CLERKS but with a bigger budget and no soul. Oh, and dance routines. (OI, you CLERKS 2 haters at the back there, pipe down.)

The film opens with Lucas, who is dressed like Lou Reed to show how cool he is, being allowed to close the store by himself. It’s an important job in any store. I remember the first time I did it, I had to write down step-by-step instructions on a till receipt. He discovers that the store is going to be taken over by a soulless music chain and decides the only logical thing to do is to steal the stores money, ride to Atlantic City, and gamble it all away. At the news that one of his employees has stolen nine thousand dollars, does the boss call the police? Does he sack Lucas? No, he looks for the money underneath the sofa and hands out love advice to his staff. The kids dance around the store to loud music, do homework, shave their hair and dance a little more. The store itself doesn’t seem to be overflowing with customers, so I’m not sure how it supports so many members of staff. Characters creep in through the roof when the building has doors at the front and rear, they sneak up on customers to kiss them in a way that’s probably meant to be funny, and they talk about the difference between vinyl and CD to score hipster points.

One of my biggest complaints with the film comes back to Lucas. After stealing the money, he then returns to the scene of the crime and sits on the sofa dispensing Zen-like comments that are probably supposed to be cool. As an apparent reason for not calling the cops, we see the manager call them and get put on hold. Twenty minutes later he’s on the phone to the cops again about a shoplifter, and neglects to mention the stolen money. The longer Lucas sits there, the more I see a story with no consequences. There’s nothing at stake and, so, nothing to care about. Another part of it probably comes from experience, I’ve worked in so many shops that not one single bit of the film rings true. It’s like a fantasy version of a shop, somewhere that the writers dreamed into existence to make an excuse for a lot of bizarre things to happen.

There’s no structure, plots come and go, and in the third act we’re suddenly hit with a drug story, a character showing no signs of taking speed is suddenly a speed freak. And there are apparently no repercussions to this, as long as you say sorry then you don’t have to deal with the sickness of withdrawal or go into rehab.  Oh, the shoplifter is apparently allowed free so that he can come back and hold the store up with a gun. The police will let him off because the gun was loaded with blanks, so no harm no foul, and he gets offered a job in the store. My head is swimming at this point.

There’s too much happening for no reason at all, intercut with scenes of people dancing around at a record store. On the plus side, there are some good songs on the soundtrack, and it features some really good young actors who went on to bigger things.

The problem with sacred cows is that sometimes they’re better left in the past. If EMPIRE RECORDS is a film you have fond memories of, keep it that way. That’s what the talented young cast of actors has chosen to do, and they’ve never looked back.

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