Last week, one of the stars of the cult ’90s comedy Empire Records compared Kurt Cobain to a has-been in a frilly pirate shirt. “The reason we picked April 8th as the day to have the powdered/coifed Rex Manning visit Empire is because Kurt was found on the 8th of April, the day the music of the 90s lost its mascot,” actor Ethan Embry, aka Mark the lovably dopey record-store clerk, tweeted. It’s not clear exactly what Embry meant. Numerous websites rushed to report that Cobain was a “secret inspiration” for the Rex Manning character. But what I think Embry was suggesting is that Manning signifies the emptiness of ’90s alt-rock culture in the wake of Cobain’s death.
It’s fitting that this tweet, like Empire Records, is a bit of a generational Rorschach test. The news that a Broadway musical version of Empire Records is currently under development is further confirmation that the 1995 film — which was essentially thrown away by the studio that made it upon release, only to be revived as a grassroots smash on video and in TV syndication — has become a defining movie for “a shoulder demographic between Generation X and the millennials,” as Buzzfeed put it in 2014.
Directed by Allan Moyle, Empire Records is a loosely plotted (and, some would argue, loosely written, acted, and shot) day-in-the-life story about a coterie of record-store employees that touches on drug abuse, suicide, gun violence, the perils of small-business ownership, and boss-on-employee battery without ever really deviating from a mood of light, happy-go-lucky insouciance. There are Gin Blossoms and Toad The Wet Sprocket songs, and a deeply weird GWAR cameo, and people headbang good-naturedly to AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood, You Got It.” Many of the film’s stars — Liv Tyler, Renee Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Embry — went on to lasting careers in other projects that had more short-term success, though Empire Records has unexpectedly become one of the most beloved entries on any of their IMDb pages.
I’ve seen Empire Records twice — which is about five percent of the viewings for a typical celebrator of Rex Manning Day. The first time was many years ago, and at the time I would’ve described Empire Records in terms similar to our own Vince Mancini, who called it “an obnoxious movie for obnoxious teens” in a piece timed with the film’s 20th anniversary in 2015. The second time I watched Empire Records was in preparation for this piece, and while I liked it more this time, it still irritated me in ways I didn’t quite understand at first.
Here’s one thing that bugged me: the anachronistic Rex Manning. As countless critics of Empire Records have pointed out, nothing about this guy makes sense. As portrayed by Grease 2 star Maxwell Caulfield, Rex looks like a 45-year-old supper-club singer. He’s totally wrong as a mid-’90s “tired rock star” archetype. He should resemble Bret Michaels, not Leif Garrett attempting to emulate Tom Jones. The character just feels a little lazy, and disconnected from the culture of the time — like the rest of Empire Records.
Comparing Rex Manning to Kurt Cobain, however, is even more inexplicable. Unless… Embry is self-aware about what Empire Records actually is, which is the personification of what happened to alternative culture in the mid-’90s. While Empire Records gets so much wrong otherwise, the film itself is a perfect artifact of how that culture was commodified and, eventually, nullified. Empire Records is disposable as art but absolutely essential as anthropology.
But that’s the opinion of a person who still identifies with the Nevermind part of the ’90s. I’m slightly older than the “shoulder demographic” of young Gen-Xers/old millennials who love this movie, and that inevitably impacts how I view it. I think my resentment of Empire Records ultimately derives from the fact that the version of the ’90s that it represents has taken over my ’90s.
This also happened with the ’80s — the underdog Our Band Could Be Your Life narrative once forwarded by music critics has been drowned out over time by the more comforting and meme-able saga told by MTV videos. With the ’90s, signifiers such as grunge rock and gangsta rap and endless angst have been down-voted in favor of frothy gifs showing young, good-looking white people in thrift-store clothes wiling away their carefree, totally ’90s days doing nothing all that important or stressful. Just try Googling “so ’90s” and see what comes up. It’s not Badmotorfinger or Ready To Die. It’s cast photos of Boy Meets World and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. In this telling of the ’90s, the greatest band on Earth is no longer Nirvana, it’s the cast of Friends.
The cliches and stereotypes we choose to believe about the past have long shaped how history is discussed and contextualized. But it’s never hit home for me like this before. It’s weird to see your own past get reclaimed and turned into something you no longer recognize. Let me make an analogy that Empire Records stans will understand: The ’90s are my neighborhood record store, and your favorite movie is Music Town.
Five years before Empire Records came and went from theaters, Moyle had a more immediate commercial and critical hit with another youth movie, 1990’s Pump Up The Volume. A vehicle for emerging star Christian Slater, Pump Up The Volume is about a shy, disaffected high school student who moonlights as Happy Harry Hard-On, a rebellious pirate-radio talk show host operating in secret from the depths of his parents’ basement. Between songs, Harry launches into extended monologues about the teenaged condition that enthrall local kids like Nora (Samantha Mathis, in her first screen role) and confound parents.
Ultimately, Harry’s truth bombs inadvertently inspire a minor revolution among the town’s high-schoolers. This is manifested by the suicide of an unloved nerd and some scandalous carrying-on in the cafeteria to Ice-T’s “Girls L.G.B.N.A.F.” Given that I happened to be an unloved nerd who had also carried on to that exact Ice-T joint, Pump Up The Volume spoke to me.
Because I was young and impressionable, I didn’t recognize the formulaic aspects of Pump Up The Volume. To me, it was simply the truth. The gist of Harry’s shtick — he utters pseudo-beatnik anti-establishment truisms like “eat your cereal with a fork” and “all the great themes have been used up and turned into theme parks” — is nothing new. But teenagers tend to be unoriginal when it comes to being pissed off. Nevertheless, contemporary teens would probably find Pump Up The Volume to be unintentionally hilarious, given that the central conceit — the outlaw danger of pirate radio — seems old-timey in the internet age. If Pump Up The Volume were remade today, it would obviously have to address the myriad changes in technology. (For starters, you’d have to change the title to Slide Into My DMs.)
I’m not going to argue that Pump Up The Volume is perfect. That was obvious when I rewatched it this week and noticed how the movie slips from a semi-realistic depiction of teen life to full-on “adults are terrible!” melodrama in the final third. (A regular problem with revisiting teen movies you loved as a kid when you’re a parent is that you now identify more with the moms and dads who are just trying to corral their mouthy, good-for-nothin’ offspring.) An Empire Records fan could just as easily poke holes in the logical fallacies of Pump Up The Volume — how in the hell does Nora not know immediately that Christian Slater is Happy Harry when she sees him check out Lenny Bruce’s How To Talk Dirty and Influence People from the school library? — as I did when discrediting Rex Manning.
But I still love Pump Up The Volume as a teen movie about a much different ’90s than the photogenic corporate slackerdom of Empire Records. While Empire Records is a reactive film, capitalizing on trends that had already flamed out by the time it opened, Pump Up The Volume helped to invent those trends.
Harry’s rants about selling out might seem self-important now, but his self-importance is authentic to how earnest teenagers see themselves. And it was rare to hear that kind of critique leveled in a movie. Before long, “selling out” would itself become the rare ’90s cliche that nobody wants to revive. (This was already true by the time of Empire Records, which dispenses the catchphrase “Damn the man!” with more than a little irony.) But I don’t think I was even aware of the concept of “selling out” when I saw Pump Up The Volume as a 12-year-old, just as I had never heard of Leonard Cohen or the Descendants. Pump Up The Volume prepared a generation of misfit kids for changes in mainstream culture that were just around the corner.
“I hate the ’60s, I hate school, I hate principals, I hate vice principals,” Harry says in one of his monologues, succinctly laying out the themes that would become central to alt-rock. At one point, Harry mockingly sings the chorus of the Youngbloods’ oldies staple “Get Together,” foreshadowing Krist Novoselic doing the same in “Territorial Pissings” from Nevermind the following year.
At the time, Pump Up The Volume was considered a genuinely important teen film. It launched Slater and Mathis as hot young stars, did modestly well at the box office, and was well-reviewed by major newspapers like the New York Times and USA Today. For many years Moyle — who remains a relatively obscure filmmaker, though he deserves to be regarded as the closest thing to a John Hughes figure in the ’90s — felt that Pump Up The Volume was his signature film, while Empire Records was seen as his biggest failure. But since the ’90s, Pump Up The Volume has become less well-known while Empire Records has ascended. Now, Empire Records will probably be mentioned first in Moyle’s obituary. But Pump Up The Volume will always be his greatest film for those of us who remember the ’90s before they were turned into gifs.