‘Empire Records’ 20 Years Later: A ’90s Movie Unstuck In Time

Empire Records has one of the unlikely cult fanbases in all of filmdom. More or less disavowed by the studio, it hit a mere 87 theaters instead of the planned 1250 when it opened in September 1995, without benefit of an ad campaign or Hollywood premiere. (Director Allan Moyle feuded over final cut with Regency, the film’s production company and Warner Bros., its distributor). It grossed just $273,188 in its entire run (that’s $526,900 adjusted for inflation!), and was mostly trampled by critics. In his one-star review, which is so full of lazy summary that he almost seemed annoyed to be writing it, Roger Ebert said “If the movie is a lost cause, it may at least showcase actors who have better things ahead of them.”

Empire Records has all the ingredients of a DVD bargain-bin curio. Yet every April, I receive a flood of emails alerting me to the impending arrival of “Rex Manning Day,” the fake holiday from Empire Records, on a date that isn’t even mentioned in the film (it shows up on a flyer). Every April 8th, “Rex Manning Day” inevitably becomes a Facebook and Twitter trending topic.

Which brings us to the obvious question: People obsess over this movie? Over this movie? I could barely remember Empire Records, which blurred together with Mallrats (which came out a month later) and a handful of similar films. I’m obsessed with most dumb ’90s things, and yet this one completely passed me by. 20 years after the fact, I wondered, could I watch it again and understand?

An Obnoxious Movie For Obnoxious Teens

The movie opens with Lucas, played by Rory Cochrane (most recently seen as Steve Flemmi in Black Mass), a kid who’s grating to look at even before he starts breaking the fourth wall. Lucas wears a black turtleneck with his bangs smooshed obnoxiously against his forehead, apparently to symbolize that he’s some kind of Bohemian. Lucas’s wardrobe, like almost everything about Empire Records, is over the top and painfully on the nose. If he was French, he’d be carrying a baguette and a bucket of snails. Lucas tells us that tonight is his night to close the store, a responsibility that requires him to count the money twice, and refrain from touching Joe’s cigars, whiskey, or drums. It requires, according to Lucas, “the obedience of a saint.”

Smash cut to Lucas playing Joe’s drums while smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey, our first clue that Empire Records is going to be very irreverent. While monkeying around Joe’s desk, Lucas discovers plans to turn Empire Records into (gasp!) a Music Town. Betrayal!

The store is supposed to be closed, but Lucas lets in one last customer after she begs him. She turns out to be the lonely, horny wife of a long-haul trucker, who has come to try to seduce Lucas. They end up dancing around the aisles for some reason, and he tells her and/or us, “Do you think that a bold, courageous act can change the course of history?”

This scene is important because it establishes a few things:

1. Lucas will converse entirely in this type of oblique, reference-heavy overwrought art school scat for the whole movie.

2. The story will be interspersed with these Vaudeville-esque interstitial scenes only tangentially related to the plot, that feel halfway between dream sequence and music video.

3. It will include plot points (e.g., a lonely horny trucker wife seduction) that would work as sitcom b-story in any era, from Family Matters to Two and a Half Men.

Lucas takes the contents of the till, a little more than $9,000, hops on his motorcycle, and heads to Atlantic City where he’s going to bet it all in an effort to save the store and his friends’ jobs (or at least, his friends’ ability to wear cool clothes and have visible tattoos at their jobs, which Music Town and their draconian dress code disallow). Damn the man, maaan!

You might expect him to play blackjack or roulette, but Empire Records throws us a curve and has Lucas opt for craps, which he plays at a table full of extras from a high school production of Guys and Dolls. He slaps a bundle of cash on the table, which the dealer doesn’t bother changing to chips before he rolls, just in case we needed reminding that this is just a movie. He wins the first round, rolling a seven, and doubling his money — $18,000. He decides to let it ride, because, and this is important, everyone who works at Empire Records is a f*cking idiot. I don’t mean this as a criticism. In fact, it may be Empire Records‘ most enduring and important quality. But we’ll get to that.

Lucas returns to Empire Records the next morning. Everyone tries to cover for him, but Joe (played by Australian Anthony LaPaglia, who hadn’t quite mastered an American accent at this stage of his career) finds out anyway. Rather than immediately calling the police, Joe sentences Lucas to sit on a couch while he figures out what to do.

Screenwriter Carol Heikkinen based Empire Records on her time working at Tower Records in L.A. and Phoenix, and according to her, an employee taking off with all the cash at the end of the night was something that really happened. Unlike Lucas, that person got fired. But if it seems like Empire Records’ employees get away with murder, that, says Heikkinen, was the point.

Lucas continues to speak in spooky mysticisms, not unlike Ethan Hawke’s Troy in Reality Bites. Was this kind of crap acceptable in the ’90s? Did they not have punching back then? Anyway, Lucas is well on his way to becoming the most obnoxious character in movie history, until we meet Mark, played by Ethan Embry, a combination of over-the-top, wide-eyed stupidity, and over-the-top, hyperactive manicness.

While nearly unwatchable, Mark is a fascinating character. Manic and stupid to the point that he probably should be hospitalized, the character seems to exist almost entirely outside of Empire Records‘ plot. While other characters deal with Lucas’s thievery and the impending Music Town takeover, the film will randomly cut to Mark, moshing to Suicidal Tendencies in the aisles. “Huh-huh,” Mark chuckles. “It’s… moshy.” Lucas spots a shoplifter? Mark pops into frame from God knows where and shouts “SHOPLIFTER!!!” directly into the camera. He’s not a character so much as a meta commentator. At one point, Mark eats a brownie and Gwar talks to him through the TV.

[Trivia note: In the original, R-rated script, this was clearly a pot brownie, but in the final, PG-13 version, where pot is never mentioned — only that they’re “special” brownies — it’s left up to the viewer’s imagination whether Mark is high on THC or just hyper. As patently cartoonish and otherwordly as Mark is, it’s not crazy to think that he could be hallucinating from a simple sugar high. He might also just be schizophrenic.]

Other characters we meet include:

• Corey, played by Liv Tyler, a virgin who just got into Harvard (the full Ringwald!). Corey plans to give her flower to Rex Manning, a washed-up pop singer she likes for some reason. “Today, I will offer myself to Rex Manning,” Corey says.

• A.J., played by Johnny Whitworth, a sentient haircut who plans to tell Corey he’s in love with her “by 1:37 this afternoon.” Empire Records, you see, is a movie where the characters just speak their motivations out loud.

• Gina, played by Renee Zellweger, an apologetically promiscuous chick in a short skirt who both envies and protects Corey. Gina has bangs.

• Debra, played by The Craft‘s Robin Tunney, a “chick with issues” who shows up with bandages on her wrists and is mean to everyone because they just don’t get it, man. Explaining the bandages on her wrists, Debra says “I went to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven but I wasn’t on the guest list.” When Debra shaves her head, Gina quips, “Whoa, check out Sinead O’Rebellion over here.”

There are a few other burnout types floating around, most too inconsequential to mention, including one played by a guy called “Coyote Shivers.” Who, fun fact, was Liv Tyler’s stepdad at the time. (The producers supposedly wanted Billy Joe from Green Day for the role.)

Suffice it to say, they’re all White Kids with Problems in the John Hughsian mold, with the singular Empire Records twist that they’re all personally obnoxious (prone to breaking into snarky, post-modern catchphrases spoken to no one in particular in that hip Gen X way) and universally terrible at their jobs.

The “90s Movie” That Isn’t

Considering the soundtrack was the most popular element of Empire Records, you’d think it’d be full of nostalgic ’90s hits. Instead, the two most popular songs were “Till I Hear It From You” by Gin Blossoms and “Girl Like You” by Edwyn Collins, which are sort of emblematic of the rest: second-tier songs by second-tier bands. There are songs by bands you remember — The Cranberries, Better Than Ezra, Cracker — but none of the songs you remember them for. They’re all bland and poppy in a way that sounds like they could’ve come out in any era. Anyone remember rocking out to “Crazy Life” by Toad the Wet Sprocket?

Me neither. The soundtrack included only 16 of the 50 songs in the movie, and the musical choices are downright bizarre. There’s “So Free For the Moment” by the Martinis, and a lengthy montage set to, of all things, Dire Straits. There’s AC/DC (which Lucas inexplicably does a Mick Jagger impression while singing along to), a bad cover version of “Money,” more awful Goo Goo Dolls-style guyliner ballads than I can count, “Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Plowed” by Sponge (one of the few recognizably ’90s songs in a ’90s movie), and at the end, a live rendition of “Sugar High” by, who else, Coyote Shivers. This last one is poorly lip-synched by Renee Zellweger. There are few ’90s rock songs that don’t make me nostalgic, and Empire Records seems to have found all of them.

The whole movie has this same non-specific quality to it. Other than the fact that it’s set at a record store and the actors, nothing about it really screams 1995. At least not the way other movies, like Reality Bites, or hell, even Van Wilder, seem to define the era they came from. Robin Tunney shaves her head, Johnny Whitworth brushes his bangs out of his eyes, and everyone wears patchwork clothes and too much jewelry and acts dramatic like every Cool Teenager since time immemorial.

Even Rex Manning, a washed-up rock star character who’s supposed to be an anachronism, feels like he could be transported to 1974 or 1988 or 2015 and he would function exactly the same as he does in Empire Records (which is to say, passably). You could put Rex in a Brady Bunch episode and he’d fit right in. What was happening in 1995? Grunge had killed glam metal and Kurt Cobain had killed himself, and the pop music landscape was in a sort of post-Pearl Jam, punk revival, one-hit wonder malaise. What would a washed-up pop star look like in 1995? I imagine the singer for Warrant, or someone from The Knack. Instead we get Rex Manning, who was apparently inspired, according to the costume designer, by “Tom Jones + Rod Stewart + Trash and Vaudeville.” Timely!

Empire Records, clearly intended to be a cool movie about cool people, gives you a strong sense of the filmmakers and studio not quite knowing what was going to be the next cool thing. Thus, Rex is unstuck in time, and so is the movie.

The Red Bra

If there’s anything legitimately iconic about Empire Records, it’s Liv Tyler in that red bra. The scene comes about after Corey demands to be allowed to bring Rex Manning his lunch. Once she has him alone, she whips off her fuzzy sweater and miniskirt (my God, I had so many crushes on girls with flat ironed hair in fuzzy sweaters in the ’90s), presenting herself to Rex  in her mismatched red bra and chaste white underwear.

Aside from the fact that Liv Tyler was everyone’s dream girl in 1995, in a movie whose wardrobe and story choices are otherwise painfully camp, this moment stands out as strikingly authentic. She’s wearing goofy, not particularly flattering, mismatched underwear, which says more about her character than any of her contrived lines. And the casual vulnerability of it, naturally, makes the sexy dreamgirl even more sex-dreamy.

Yet if Carol Heikkinen had had her way, the scene wouldn’t even exist.

“That whole Corey character got rewritten a lot.  The studio just wanted this idea of sex. I think that’s why you have this scene with a girl in her underwear, like they desperately wanted to have something that was close to nudity in it. And they’re supposed to be at work! This is a movie that didn’t need nudity.”

To Corey’s brazen propositioning, Rex responds by unzipping his pants, holding up a bottle of salad dressing, and saying “I hope you like the taste of bleu cheese.”

I guess because he was going to put the salad dressing on his dick? And have Corey lick it off? Because God forbid you have Corey’s beautiful pouty lips on your penis without some kind of dairy-based buffer? I dunno, man. (“I definitely didn’t write any version of that scene. I didn’t get it,” Heikkinen says).

Corey runs away, then inexplicably gets mad at Gina for her own inability to go through with having sex with Rex Manning (“I’m not like you!”). Paving the way for Gina to screw Rex out of spite, leading to another fight where Gina calls out Corey, saying “Yeah, well at least I’m not some closet speed freak!”

This refers, of course, to the pills Corey has been surreptitiously swallowing all day. Corey flips out and starts breaking everything, and she’s literally foaming at the mouth when she’s finally restrained and consoled by shaven-headed Debra, who finally stops hating her. “I guess none of us are perfect,” Debra says, or something to that effect (message!).

It’s odd and typical of Empire Records that the most iconic scene is also a setup for its lamest, most derivative and pointless scenes. The whole thing feels like a poor man’s The Breakfast Club meets “Donna Martin Graduates!”

I think this was the death rattle of mall culture.

I should note that while everyone seems to remember the Liv Tyler scene in particular, Renee Zellweger’s sexy scene is criminally underrated. Just after Lucas has apprehended the pubescent shoplifter calling himself Warren Beatty, Renee Zellweger struts out into the office wearing nothing but a Music Town apron (I guess to protest the dress code?), looking ridiculously hot. Joe yells at her to put her clothes back on, Warren ogles, and a few minutes later she starts taking Polaroid selfies with Warren the Shoplifter (?) during another apropos-of-nothing music montage. Jesus Christ, did these people ever stop to think that not everything deserves a music montage?

So, What Is It About This Movie?

Look, I’m not here to tell you that Empire Records deserves to be remembered or that it belongs to any kind of pantheon. It’s mostly pretty obnoxious and bad. But if there’s one thing that feels legitimately touching and worthwhile about it, it’s that when all is said and done, no one gets fired. Not spooky, thieving Lucas, not slutty Gina, not speed freak Corey, not AJ with his stupid hair and earnest face, not possibly schizophrenic Mark, not even Debra, who basically shut down the entire store in the middle of the day so that she could have a mock funeral. Warren stole CDs and came back with a gun and they gave him a job (whether this was a real job offer or a symbolic gesture is up for debate).

The Coyote Shivers dude and a couple other stoners were there too, though I’m still not entirely clear on whether they were actual employees. Point being, even in a movie as obnoxious and contrived as Empire Records, there’s something charming about the idea of a place where, no matter what happens, everyone covers for each other when they f*ck up and no one gets fired. No personal issue is too big (not even having a gun held on you) to stop you from lip-synching together when your favorite song comes on.

And while I can’t imagine having to work with these dramatic, incompetent, hyperactive idiots, I can understand why the idea of a place where you can never be too obnoxious or too incompetent at your job would be attractive to an audience of obnoxious, teenage screwups. It feels unstuck in time because it’s a movie that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, which found an audience of pre-adults who didn’t quite know who they wanted to be. I’m obnoxious, you’re obnoxious. Let’s hold hands and listen to Cracker. To that extent, I think I get it.

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.