The 90s was a magical time for small cinema to get noticed. There was a slew of directors coming from nowhere with fresh new films. Films like Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Kevin Smith’s Clerks Jean Pierre Jeunet’s City of Lost Children and so on, all came from fresh minds looking to get noticed. These spawned copycat films with larger budgets that often didn’t quite get what made the originals they were so fond of tick. Clerks was probably the most cloned and is almost single handedly responsible for the rise of the slacker comedy-drama. Now, Empire Records was no direct clone, it was in production long before Clerks release, but it can easily be described as being from the same mould. But is it any good? Click below and I’ll tell you definitively. Because only I can decide these things.
Empire Records follows a tumultuous day in the lives of the staff at one of the last independent record stores. See, back in the day there used to be record stores that weren’t parts of huge chains and they had a life of their own and were fecking radical. It makes me sad that I feel I have to remind people how cool indie records stores were. Anyway, when one of the store clerks, Lucas (Rory Cochrane), discovers that the independence of Empire Records is at threat from being purchased by a large chain he takes it upon himself to gamble the money in the store’s safe to raise the funds to save the store. This doesn’t work. Understandably his boss Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) isn’t too impressed. His stress levels aren’t helped by the fact that all his staff bring all their troubles in with them.
The film isn’t really about trying to save the store, although that is a goal. What it’s really about is how a small group of people with shared passions for creativity and music work as a family group. Friends fall out with each other. Crazy hijinks with shoplifters are had. Even a few punches are shown. There’s a fair amount of romantic entanglements and there’s even a pretty good representation of someone living with depression. The end goal of the film is more that they’re a family unit close friends that care for each other a lot, rather than an attempt to raise the money to save the store.
The characters are all really nicely written with no two characters fitting into the exact same hole. They all bring something unique to the flow of the film which is what helps keep you watching when the story may feel like it’s not maintaining it’s direction. As mentioned, this film isn’t entirely drive by a single goal, but more a collection of personas. It’s a lot like European cinema in that sense. But, also, a lot like Clerks. Although, if you took this and Clerks and mashed them together you’d get the excellent High Fidelity. No one character is central to the film, although Liv Tyler’s Corey and Rene Zellweger’s Gina do form a lot of the drama, each character is given their appropriate amount of time to shine.
During the film a desperately out of touch singer named Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) is at the store for a signing. He is an outside element dropped in to mess with the relationships of a few of the characters whilst also providing us an easily mockable counter to the style and tone of the rest of the characters. He’s tanned, egotistical and overly quaffed of hair. This directly grates against the more angst laden and, for lack of a better term, realness of the rest of the cast. They’re all flawed and realise they’re flawed whereas he’s flawed but prefers to pretend he’s great. He’s the old school saying “look at me I’m the best” whilst the clerks of the store are the atypical 90s “look if you want, I don’t care” school of thought. It’s the perfect juxtaposition to make the cast relatable directly to its intended audience.
The film is shot in a way that may not be stylish, but it is perfect for this kind of work. To have shot this in some complex manner could have intruded on the character work and the tone of the film. This isn’t about being showy. The characters reject showy at every chance. The film is intended to feel like a mixture of real and slightly exaggerated versions of the kinds of people you’d expect to find in your ideal, anti-establishment, record store. The film is scored with some excellent music choices, some of which serve as personal soundtracks for individual characters. Empire Records isn’t afraid to just take a moment to let the music take over and let the characters be themselves, enjoying the tunes that they share passion for. Stuff like this just isn’t done often these days. Well, apart from in Guardians of the Galaxy… which was really cool of James Gunn to do.
What has quite surprised me the last few days was discovering that Empire Records was reviewed very poorly upon release. I remember seeing good reviews, but maybe this was a US/UK divide thing. The film holds a 24% rating on Rotten Tomatoes which is unfathomably low to me. I know so many people that love this film. I just can’t understand how anyone at the time would be unable to see just how well put together this film is. It may seem like it’s meandering and unfocused, but that’s because it’s representing a confused and directionless youth. The film is entirely about, and primarily for, the generation of people it represents on screen. The only excuse I can think of for how poorly it reviewed was literally because of a generational gap. Certain films can be received harshly when they’re right on the cusp of the next generation of viewers. I’m sure there’s films today that are getting reviewed poorly that 10-20 years from no will be considered seminal. I’ve probably slated some of them. Hopefully I’m not that out of touch yet though. I honestly don’t think there are any films these days that fit the same mould for today’s younger generation. Maybe Juno… Adventureland? Neither feel good enough to me. But, as mentioned, I could be out of touch.
What I do know is that Empire Records speaks to me in a way that feels like it was made for me to view. And I suppose other people from my age group also… whatever. The music, the humour, the day in the life structure (which I’ve always found appealing) and the characters that all feel outside the norm are all elements that I connect with far better than I can with many other films. By the end of the film, when the guy are holding one last celebration, you’ll feel the connections between them and the sense of exhilaration when (SPOILERS) they manage to raise enough money to save the store. When Gina overcomes her fear and sings lead in a band for the first time. When A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) and Corey finally come together after his disastrous and ill timed attempt to confess his love earlier. When the gang are all on the roof of Empire Records dancing the night away you’ll feel that they earned it and you’ll be happy for them because, for the past 90 minutes, you got to know each of them and, provided you have a heart, you grew to care about what happened to them. Empire Records is a superb film that deserves the praise it often receives these days which, in turn, is a big middle finger to the old guard that tore it down when it was first released.