I listened to a lot of embarrassing music back in 1995: Toad the Wet Sprocket, Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, Sponge, The Lemonheads, and basically half of what’s on the Empire Records soundtrack. Empire Records is a fairly good representation of the popular, watered-down, R.E.M.-wannabe alt music of the era. Like the music, Empire Records was crap then, and it’s crap now, but nostalgia has had a funny way of shining down on it. It’s all very affectionately shameful. It’s pure cheese, but it’s aged well, like a nice gruyere — sweet, but not overpowering. And great for fondue!
It’s also a very unexpected cult classic among a certain age group. It only made $303,000 in its theatrical release, and reviews for the film were largely negative (it still possesses only a 24 percent over on RottenTomatoes). It’s unexpected because there was nothing particularly original, ahead of its time, or inventive about Empire Records. It had no edge; it was overly lit; poorly acted; badly scripted; and blandly directed. There’s no real good reason to like Empire Records. Hell, even the much revered soundtrack hasn’t held up particularly well, except as a nostalgic artifact.
But it’s weirdly lovable. It’s that out-of-your-league girlfriend in high school who ended up being kind of dim, but with whom you still feel a sort of romantic kinship. Empire Records is bubble gum and Exclamation! perfume. It personifies a time and place and smell and aura, and it does so without recalling any of the negative emotions of the time. It’s a romantic crush without any of the attendant heartache. It may be to John Hughes what Toad the Wet Sprocket was to R.E.M., but that doesn’t alter anyone’s fondness for it.
It’s hard to call it much of a movie, really. It follows the employees of a record store over the course of a day, beginning with the discovery that Empire Records is about to be turned into a corporate Music Town, followed by Lucas’ (Rory Cochrane) attempt to gamble the store’s on-hand cash into enough money to save it. He fails, losing $9,000, further endangering the future of Empire Records.
Subsequently, and over the course of the day, we meet a series of employees, each with their own minor situation to deal with: Liv Tyler’s Corey, about to head to Harvard for college, wants to lose her virginity to a washed-up David Cassidy-type, Rex Manning (it’s Rex Manning Day at the store). A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is in love with Corey, but she has him labeled as best friend material. Debra (Robin Tunney) walks into the store and shaves her head the morning after trying to slash her wrists. Gina (Renée Zellweger) wears next-to-nothing and and fucks her way into attention. Mark (Ethan Embry) is there just to be likable and goofy, while Berko (Coyote Shivers) kind of stands around and looks like a Gap version of one of the Sex Pistols. Anthony Lapaglia’s Joe Reaves runs the place. He basically comes in and grunts in between soundtrack sequences.
Everything works itself out as it should for a poor man’s Breakfast Club/Clerks set in a record store, and Empire Records is saved, at least for a coupe more years, until it was probably replaced by a Tower Records and shut down a couple of years ago when that company went into bankruptcy (it’s probably a Barnes & Noble now, at least until it gets shut down). But it is a cool reminder of a time not that long ago when independent record stores still existed, when people bought albums instead of downloading singles, and when even corporate music was more genuine, less auto-tuned, But more important than that, it reminds us of a time when Renee Zellwegger was hot. Like, crazy fucking amazing hot.
It’s not a movie that takes itself seriously, and maybe Allan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume) was phoning it in at the time, but I think much of Empire Records’ charm comes from the fact that it was such a lazy movie. It just kind of drifts along amiably, coasting by on music that you probably won’t find anymore outside of some Adult Alternative station buried among the channels on your satellite radio. It’s kind of a sad testament to the ’90s that Empire Records would rise to the top of the decade’s best teen comedies, but there it is. It was a fake Singles, but for a certain age demo, it was their fake Singles, and there’s something to be said for generational loyalty.