The Quick Failure and Unexpected Comeback of ‘Empire Records’

In September of 1995, a teen-geared comedy called Empire Records opened quietly in only 87 theaters. It was greeted by hostile reviews and meager box office, grossing barely a quarter of a million dollars before its theatrical run came to a halt two weeks later. It was then shuffled off to home video, its cast moving on to bigger things (some of them, considerably bigger), the whole enterprise quickly forgotten — but, as Mike LaFontaine (Fred Willard) notes in A Mighty Wind, “that’s good, because that’s how you establish a cult.” And so, somehow, Empire Records became a cult classic, prompting fan events and “remix” DVDs and a new Blu-ray release, timed both to the picture’s 20th anniversary and the thematically significant Record Store Day. A fresh reappraisal of the picture prompts two questions: Why did it tank in the first place, and why is it a fan fave now?

Approached solely as a motion picture and not as a would-be and eventual unlikely cultural artifact, Empire Records is high on charm and low on quality. The Clerks-esque story of one crazy day in retail—in this case, at an indie record store in an unnamed and breathtakingly white Middle American city, populated by a full array of teen archetypes. There’s the hyper-scholastic virgin (Liv Tyler), the snarky rebel (Rory Cochrane), the bad girl (Renée Zellweger), the metalhead (Ethan Embry), the suicidal goth (Robin Tunney), and the nice guy (Johnny Withworth), as well as their boss/patriarch (Anthony LaPaglia). And it’s a busy 24 hours at Empire: their owner is about to sell them out to the megachain Music Town, last night’s deposit ended up at an Atlantic City craps table, and it’s Rex Manning Day, named for the in-store appearance of a faded TV star-turned-pop idol (Maxwell Caulfield).

Renee Zellweger in "Empire Records"

Needless to say, over the course of that very long day, laughs are had and tears are shed and crises are unmasked (favorite: Tyler is a “closet speed freak”) and lessons are learned, and everybody comes out of it a little wiser, tra la la. It’s all pretty harmless and certainly likable, mostly thanks to the good cheer of the performers; Tyler is woefully miscast (Zellweger, to Tyler: “You are a nerd.” Tyler: “I am!” Audience: “No you’re not!”) but sweet, Tunney growls with the best of them, Embry gives his character an unexpected Harpo Marx impishness, and Zellweger is just plain spectacular, putting her whiskey-voiced spin on even the weakest of lines (“Shock me shock me shock me with your deviant behavior”) and dominating the picture with her unapologetic sexiness (her apron-and-underwear scene retains its considerable, um, memorability). The movie rings true to anyone who’s ever worked a shitty part-time job with friends who became like a family; it plays, more often than not, like a midway-through-the-run episode of a wacky workplace sitcom, “another treat,” as Zellweger puts it, “from the gang at Empire Records.”

In the popular memory of the movie, these perks tend to spackle over its considerable problems. The writing is pedestrian at best, the characters are paper-thin, and director Allan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume) lets the music do the heavy lifting, over-scoring it to a point of comic overkill; even the slightest bit of action or emotion gets a new music cue. With something like 50 songs crowding for space, Empire Records plays less like a movie than a jukebox — or, more accurately, a karaoke machine, since Moyle’s music video-style construction means we stop the action every few minutes so the cast can dance and lip-sync along with Better Than Ezra or the Martinis. Jimmy Fallon must love this movie.

Scene from "Empire Records"

So sure, it’s a bit of a mess — but plenty of worse movies were giant hits in the mid-‘90s, so how did this one flop so badly? There’s no simple answer. Word is the film was tinkered with pretty extensively in post-production, with the original two-day narrative compressed into one and scenes tossed by the handful (Tobey Maguire’s entire role was excised); the film clocks in at a scant 90 minutes with credits. The indie-style platform release doesn’t bespeak a tremendous amount of confidence from distributor Warner Brothers, who’d presumably want to open a movie like this wide and make a few quick bucks from mall kids.

And, for whatever reason, fall of 1995 was also just a lousy time to put out your youth-oriented comedy; in the same two-month space, Mallrats, Angus, and National Lampoon’s Senior Trip all bombed, with the preachy and ghastly Dangerous Minds somehow becoming the must-see teen movie of the season. Plus, by the time Empire hit theaters that fall, it gave off something of a “day late and a dollar short” vibe; the ‘90s alt-rock movement was already waning, which is part of the trouble with trying to put together a hip music movie in the comparatively glacially-paced world of movies.

Rory Cochrane in "Empire Records"

No, it found its audience later, thanks to the “Greatest Hits of the ’90s” soundtrack and nostalgia airings on VH1 and HBO, and the very qualities that made it already feel late to the scene in ’95 are probably what makes it so popular now — it is, if nothing else, quintessentially ‘90s. The simplicity of the characterizations was almost laughable at the time, from inked-and-nose-ringed Tunney cutting off all her hair with the accompaniment of a faux-Lillith ballad to Cochrane’s Lucas, the leather-jacketed, Caesar-cropped, sunglass-clad, unironic Doors-quoting, motorcycle-riding wiseass who might as well wear a T-shirt reading “BAD BOY.” But because they were such of-the-moment archetypes, an audience who lived through that era — and, perhaps, one that didn’t — can latch onto them without grappling with nuances. Similar simplicity allows them to attach to its vague, all-purpose anti-authoritarian messaging; Lucas spouts “Damn the man,” and we can all shake our heads and agree, cheering on the big, unauthorized ‘Protect Endangered Music’ rally that ends a movie released by noted multimedia behemoth Warner Brothers.

And yet, such simplicity couples with that soundtrack (Toad the Wed Sprocket, Gin Blossoms, The Cranberries, NEED I CONTINUE) to make Empire Records less of its moment than about it. It’s about the ‘90s the way a Buzzfeed listicle is — no analysis, no cultural context, just pointing to the bare midriffs and the clothes and the music and saying, “LOOK, IT WAS THE ‘90S.” And so it was.

Empire Records is out Tuesday on Blu-ray.