Cult Film Review: Empire Records

The year is 1995. Renee Zellweger looked much more familiar, while Liv Tyler looked pretty much the same.

It was also the year that the two starred in Empire Records. Let’s get down to brass tacks here. It may have entranced you as a teenager, all those righteous “yeah!” thrusts and bitter moments of maudlin introspection matching your world view perfectly (this may also be described as the Requiem For A Dream Effect), but now… it’s grunge reimagined by Hallmark.

Maybe it’s the cynicism kicking in, but Empire Records owes more than a debt to The Breakfast Club (Honestly? One of the worst films ever) but remains sufficiently in credit thanks to Glee and High School Musical. Hell, maybe even Good Burger. Watching it now is like finding your old Livejournal, or… God help us… your old MSN chat logs. Feel free to shiver at the thought.

The film’s central plot finds employee Lucas discovering that the store is about to be taken over by a bigger, more-efficient franchise; the not-so-subtly-named Music Tower. On a whim, he decides to gamble the store’s entire cashflow in Atlantic City on roulette, a game he’s never played before.

GUESS WHAT? He loses it all and leaves his boss, his friends, colleagues and his own job staring into the abyss. Smart move. His boss Joe, instead of head-butting him, just kinda orders him to sit on the couch while he proceeds to run about like a maniac trying to find the money, deflect HIS boss and cover for Lucas aka the guy who messed it all up in the first place.

Anyway, all our favorite stereotypes are here. There’s Corey (Liv Tyler), the perfect A-grader with a darrrrrk secret! There’s Gina (Zellweger), the promiscuous one with a heart of gold. AJ (Johnny Whitworth), the pretty dude who’s shy but super talented and stuff. And so on.

We meet “Warren”; a smarmy little shoplifter who you just really want to punch in the ribs. He’s held in the back while they wait for the police to arrive. A kid, by the way, who they later pin the crime of stealing $9,000.

As the doomsday clock draws closer to midnight, we see Corey throw herself at her idol Rex Manning and make a fool of herself, Gina promptly does the dirty deed with Rex, arguments, Corey’s darrrrrk secret is a speed addiction. All hell breaks loose.

It’s another case of, as the film even puts it, “perfect school, perfect family, perfect body” but according to Corey, “nothing’s ever fine!” It’s teen angst to the nth degree. But then this is a teen movie. Real suffering and misery would be a drag. Although, just one year before Kurt Cobain opined that “teenage angst has paid off well, but now I’m bored and old.” Maybe he was onto something after all.

Cult Film Review: Empire Records

Warren, who up until this point had turned from shoplifter into comical side character, reappears with an actual gun and begins actually shooting and holding hostages. Nobody really bats an eyelid (not even Joe, who has a bullet fired over his head at point-blank range) and the gang treat the whole episode with joyful abandon.

Anyway, it’s all fine because Warren only did it because he wanted a job at the store. He promptly gets it (!). The police, unconcerned by a teenager wielding a weapon and taking an entire store hostage, don’t appear too concerned about anything, on account of “his age” and the fact that the gun “only had blanks.” In reality the police probably would have beaten this guy unconscious by now. But hey, if you want a job quicktime, just take a gun to work (Note: DO NOT take a gun to work)!

Inevitably, we career into the emotional climax; a series of home truths and “I’ve always loved yous” expressed around a fake funeral (no time to explain, just get in the car).

Sure, it’s easy to poke fun at a film with 20 years on the clock and intended to be a document of time, place and demographic. It’s also a coming-of-age, feel-good film. It’s best viewed when you do actually seem to have all the time in the world, and working in a record store actually seems like a viable career option. To even think of a time when a two-floored and busy independent record shop was actually a thing seems weird, and it’s a reason why Empire Records and its ilk endure.

Sure enough, thankfully enough, our guys and girls overcome the corporate lobster claws and win back both pride and job security. Is it a stretch to consider Stephen Frears’ High Fidelity a spiritual sequel? The harsh reality of moving forward with a dream against the modern age (and major personality hang-ups too, but that’s by the by for now)? Think about it anyway, won’t you?

As the plot synopsis says: “In celebration of their win against ‘the man’, the gang ends their day with a dance party on the roof.” It’s a happy ending, but all of their futures remain uncertain. I suppose that’s adolescence in a nutshell. Hang on, perhaps it does make sense in the end…

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