“Damn the man! Save the Empire!” So floppy-haired stoner Mark shouts over the reporter who broadcasts the closure of Empire Records, an independent record store to rival any of nineties middle America. His straightforward cry encapsulates Empire Records’ spirit—one of adolescent rebellion and unquestioning enthusiasm.
For the uninitiated, director Allan Moyle’s 1995 movie follows a twenty-four hour period of store operation, diving between the perspectives of the different teenage misfits working there. The plot is uncomplicated: the closing shift worker discovers corporation MusicTown’s plans to take over the business. He attempts to gamble the shop’s earnings to save the store, and loses them within the film’s first 20 minutes. The rest of the movie captures the following day of chaos, only made more riotous by the coinciding visit of ageing 80’s pop idol Rex Manning.
While the threat of The Man™ looms ominously throughout, Empire Records’ real heart is its main cast of endearing weirdos, a The Breakfast Club–style band of contrasting music geeks. Despite its unforgiving 31% Rotten Tomatoes rating, with critics slamming the movie as “silly and predictable”, the movie boasts a notable cult following. This, however, is not in spite of but due to the exuberant immaturity of Empire Records.
As a movie thematically dependent on the music of the 1990s, Empire Records‘ soundtrack is unavoidably important, and fortunately does not disappoint. The alt-rock that swamped contemporary airwaves dramatically accentuates any scene it’s played in. That said, this occasionally involves subtlety being thrown out of the window: Ape Hangers’ ‘I Don’t Want to Live Today’ seems particularly on the nose, playing as it does in a scene announcing one character’s suicide attempt. Numerous infectious dance scenes punctate the 90-minute run time, often to the despair of the more ‘cool’ characters. In a scene following the capture of a young shoplifter—permanently known by his pseudonym of Warren Beatty—the young delinquent sulks before eventually joining in with a celebratory performance of AC/DC’s ‘If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)’.
The rest of the movie equally eschews all subtlety, instead favouring big acting and loud characters. In true teen ‘dramady’ style, the cast provides all the recognisable stock character tropes of the era. There’s the stoner, the popular girl, the emo loner and, of course, the black turtle-neck–owning, superiority–complex possessing artiste.
Like the characters, the film’s plot is continually jarring in its see-sawing and intense tones. Debra’s suicidal hair shave, for instance, is immediately followed by a much lighter scene in which manager/father-figure Joe chases down a wayward employee. These wild and hyperbolic scenes—and the sudden changes in tone that accompany them—are charming in their own way, mirroring the dramatic side of teenage life, in its exaggerated quality and inevitable intense mood swings.
Empire Records falls into that unfortunate group of movies, which also includes the likes of Jennifer’s Body and Treasure Planet, that marketing executives failed by ignoring what made the movies unique. For this film, they could have taken advantage of its distinctively teenaged, optimism-bathed displeasure with society. Instead they stripped scenes, cut budgets and halted advertising. After being released in only 85 U.S. cinemas, the movie was declared a critical and commercial flop.
Despite this injustice Empire Records soon gathered a cult teen following, its VHS tapes being passed between fans like sacred scrolls. Soon, secret midnight screenings gained acclaim. #RexManningDay now trends annually on Twitter. Eventually, executives recognised The Empire’s growing fan base. A vinyl reissue of the soundtrack was soon offered up, followed by a 2003 “Special Fan Edition” DVD in 2003. Finally, Empire was moved to Netflix in 2014.
Ultimately, the film makes us all ‘Warren Beattys’: even if you’re predisposed to heavily criticise this ‘silly’ movie, Empire Records’ unabashed enthusiasm is contagious. Empire perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the mid-90s in that it’s far from faultless, but is without a doubt a welcome and optimistic escape from the world us viewers still find ourselves in. As a celebration of anti-establishment idealism, ’90s alt-rock and sheer youthful joy, Empire Records remains a starry-eyed classic, even 26 years after its original release.
Words by Kate Bowie
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