For people of a certain age, specifically those on the border of Generation X and Millennial, this next sentence will make you feel old. Empire Records is about to turn 20. If you weren’t in middle school or high school in the mid-90s, Empire Records likely means nothing to you. It came and went in theatres, won zero film-related awards and no long appears on cable every weekend. The only lasting impact it appears to have on internet culture is the rather small, if annual, celebration of “Rex Manning Day,” which ties into the movie’s central plot.
Yet, for people like me, it was a pop-culture milestone. Friends were made over the sole fact that the other person loved Empire Records too. It’s the first film I can remember flatly stating as my favorite film all of time. I gorged on various Monty Python movies, Evil Dead pictures and a handful of other releases. Empire Records was mine. Or ours. It was a combination of Richard Linklater’s chattiness and simplicity with Cameron Crowe’s sweetness and romance. I think many of us believed the thing would stand as the 90s edition of The Breakfast Club, with various personalities finding out how similar they are and uniting for a common cause.
That didn’t occur. Empire Records has faded. Unlike John Hughes’ filmography, the movie is talked about with as much frequency and import as Pogs or other 90s staples that faded as quickly as they came. Why did this happen? Should it have happened? Is Empire Records a forgotten classic, a rightly ignored stab at appealing to America’s youth or something in between?
Released on September 22, 1995 and out of theatres by the end of October, Empire Records earned a tad over $300,000 at the box-office. The movie was directed by Allan Moyle, who had previously done a film also tied to the world of music; Pump Up the Volume. Where that picture dealt with a character played by Christian Slater who ran a pirate radio station, Empire Records took us into a more corporate world, of a sort. It’s characters were employees of the titular record store, an independent shop that is on the verge of coming under the wing of a national chain.
Other than store manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), the cast consists largely of teens, or adults pretending to be as such. There is the rambunctious, livewire Mark (Ethan Embry), the counter-culture, melancholy Deb (Robin Tunney), the catty, confident Gina (Renee Zellweger), the arty, lovesick A.J. (Johnny Whitworth), the object of his desire Corey (Liv Tyler) and the one that kicks all of the trouble into gear Lucas (Rory Cochrane). Said trouble erupts after Lucas tries to save the store from corporate takeover by – unsuccessfully – bidding the day’s earnings at a nearby casino.
Over the course of twenty-four hours, jobs are given and lost, love is professed and rejected, alternative rock blares from the speakers and a troubadour singer named Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) ends up surrounded by much of this wackiness.
For a period of four or five years, as mentioned above, Empire Records was my favorite film. I had a recorded version off of some premium movie channel, then a legit VHS copy, not to mention the soundtrack playing on something close to a loop. Dozens of Saturday night were spent spinning through it with my dear friend Jax; akin to a Rocky Horror Picture Show reenactment for two. If the previously discussed Kevin Smith movies were a key facet of how I joked with friends, Empire Records was the chunk that represented my emotional mindset. As many my age did, I found something to connect with in nearly all of the characters that inhabited.
A.J.’s longing for Corey mimicked so many high school crushes. Mark’s obsession with thunderous guitars echoed my passion for numerous metal bands of the time. Debra’s depression rang close, as I’m sure it did for countless other teens. Despite the fact that not a single moment in Empire Records takes places in a classroom, it felt particularly potent in terms of its teenage sensibilities. These were the people I wanted to spend time with. I wanted to veto someone else’s bad musical choices. I longed to be as witty as Lucas. I dreamed of rocking out on the roof at night.
Each viewing brought fresh details, be they a new recognition of a band’s poster in the background or a song in the faint background of a scene. On what must’ve been my twentieth or so evening with Empire Records, I noticed that Dishwalla’s “Counting Blue Cars” could be heard when Berko (Coyote Shivers) makes his first appearance. My mind was blown. How had I not heard this? Why wasn’t that song on the soundtrack? How did the filmmakers pick that song months before it became a hit?
The fact that much of this was declared by critics as a re-appropriating of serious, genuine alternative culture in order to sell it to white, suburban teens didn’t mean a thing to me. Adult me can recognize that the songs of The Cranberries and Gin Blossoms aren’t necessarily milestones in terms of songwriting. Teenage me literally asked for an album from The Meices, a group whose highpoint was being the background track to a chase scene in a financially unsuccessful film.
Or was it unsuccessful. Yes it lacked the box-office skills, but nearly everyone I knew at Leonardtown High School in southern chunk of Maryland owned Empire Records and its soundtrack. It’s rental and VHS sales numbers have to be significant, though I have been unable to dig up any of these numbers. Still, the movie had appeal through-out that certain niche of American culture. The movie may not be a touchstone many people revisit. It is nevertheless one that had several years of devotion unlike nearly any other movie for my demo in the mid-90s.
I know Empire Records isn’t going to suddenly re-enter the pantheon of personal favorites. That fact I can tell before sitting down for a single frame for the first time since probably 2000. That doesn’t equate crap. Director Allan Moyle’s career may not be littered with classics, just as the movie’s screenwriter Carol Heikkinen isn’t. Still, a lot of quality cinema emerged from people who only managed to tap into something once.
I expect to roll my eyes. I expect to laugh a lot too and to find the majority of the ensemble to have a sweet, simple chemistry. We shall see.
Can something be crassly earnest? Empire Records sure implies this. Though it’s a touchstone for a particular segment of 90s kids, the film actually brings to mind the thought of Emo kids a decade later. There is a raw, flailing sensitivity going on here, which of course would translate well to the raw, flailing nature of being a teenager. Sure the movie has someone shout, “Damn the man! Save the Empire!” in its closing act. Empire Records isn’t really engaging with the counter-culture movement as much as its twenty-somethings going through that faze where the world’s options can be overwhelming. It may not do it with particular nuance or perfect vision, but there is a beating heart in Moyle’s movie that translates.
Aiding matters first and foremost is the cast, especially the trio of Cochrane, Tunney and Anthony LaPaglia. Before becoming staples of television crime-dramas, these three put in rather stellar work here. Cochrane hits the right level of overconfident and good-natured as Lucas, the one who fucks it up and ends up accidentally igniting changes in those around him. His discussions with the camera, where he runs through plans and frets about his mistakes, could read as obnoxious. Cochrane makes it fun, as if we were along for the mischief. Tunney’s Deb is a buzz-saw of feelings; bipolar and pissed at the world for letting her down. It cruises along as the perfect shade of melancholy, without ever overstepping into outright weepiness. LaPaglia has the harder job as Joe, the manager of the store. He is essentially the dad of these misfit toys. His kind, concerned presence bares a tired saltiness that allows Joe some depth.
The rest of the cast is mostly solid. Zellweger is engagingly cruel and broken, showing the fire and occasional goofiness that made her best parts memorably years later. Caulfield is a wonderful prick. He oozes the condescension that pits him alongside Christopher McDonald’s Shooter McGavin as one of the great, love-to-loathe assholes of the 90s. Embry is all energy and excitement as Mark; somehow not annoying in-spite of a part that asks him to basically squeak with joy.
Where things don’t entirely work are in the A.J. and and Corey relationship. Whitworth plays it with the appropriate earnestness, but the pairing with Tyler is close to a non-starter. Some of that is the nature of the script. We see A.J. talk about loving Corey deeply and narrowing down the exact time of day he’s going to tell her his true feelings. What isn’t shown is why. Tyler basically smiles or cries a bunch as Corey; less a person than a cradle of traits. She bakes for everyone. She studies too hard. She is equally messed up. Tyler and Whitworth play what’s on the page as best they can. What’s there is a hole that occasionally swallows up the good parts around it.
The joy in the return comes from comedic bits that hold up well. Lucas pestering a shoplifter by being obtuse and bizarre. Mark getting high and imagining getting eaten alive by heavy-metal act Gwar. A.J. practicing his confessional lines for Corey and conjuring, “You know that feeling when you get out of a warm bath… well… you make me feel like a bath?”
The joy in the return comes from really loving all things Lucas and Deb. That quietly moving scene between LaPaglia and Tunney where she confesses her attempt at suicide via a pink Lady Bic. A soundtrack that may not be littered with great acts, but great songs.
The joy in the return comes from seeing that Empire Records, for its faults and all, is actually a pretty solid film.