The 1995 film, Empire Records takes place in a fictional record store. The store is located in a state called Delaware, which I’m pretty sure is fictional as well. (Have you ever actually met anyone from Delaware? And don’t say Joe Biden because we all know he’s just a hologram…) Empire Records is a beloved institution, an independent record shop that’s as well-known for its lively employees as its amazing selection of music!
However, things are not perfect in the world of Empire Records. The store is owned by a heartless businessman named Mitchell (Ben Bode). Mitchell hates Empire Records and usually just lets the store manager, former drummer and Scott Stapp-lookalike Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), run the place. However, Mitchell has decided to sell Empire Records to the soulless and corporate Music Town franchise. Oh my God! If Empire Records becomes a Music Town, the employees will have to wear orange aprons! They won’t be allowed to wear anything too revealing or have any visible piercings! And nobody will be allowed to dance in the aisles!
Over the course of just one day, can the staff of Empire Records find a way to save their store!?
It would be easier if not for the fact that a hundred other things happen over the course of that same day. A shoplifter (Brendan Sexton III, who co-starred in the very different Welcome to the Dollhouse the same year that he appeared here) keeps trying to steal stuff and, at one point, he even shows up at the store with a gun! Is it possible that he just wants to join the Empire Records family and is just hoping that he’ll be offered a job?
And then there’s Rex Manning! That’s right — it’s Rex Manning Day! Who is Rex Manning? Well, he used to star on a show called The Family Way and his nickname is Sexy Rexy. He has truly memorable hair. Middle-aged people love him but most young people think that he’s a joke. Rex is going to signing copies of his latest album at Empire Records and you better believe that he’s brought blue cheese salad dressing with him. There’s a reason they call him Sexy Rexy and it’s not just that Rex Harrison is no longer around to object. Rex is played by Maxwell Caulfield. Caulfield steals every scene that he appears in and it’s hard not to feel that he’s playing a version of who he could have become if Grease 2 hadn’t bombed at the box office.
And, of course, all the members of Empire Records staff have their own personal problems to deal with. Fortunately, since this is a breezy and comedic movie, nobody has problem that can’t be solved within ten to fifteen minutes.
For instance, Debra (Robin Tunney) is suicidal and shows up for work with a big bandage on her wrist. After clocking in, she promptly shaves her head. Debra is depressed and troubled but guess what? All she needs is for her friends to hold a mock funeral in the break room. (And who is taking care of the customers while everyone else is eulogizing Debra? Probably Andre but we’ll talk more about him in a moment…)
Berko (Coyote Shivers) appears to be Debra’s boyfriend but he doesn’t seem to be that good of a boyfriend. Berko’s a musician and he wants to make it big. Solution to his problem: an impromptu concert on the roof of Empire Records! And you know what? Coyote Shivers was not the world’s best actor but the song he performs, Sugar High, will stay in your head long after you hear it.
Eddie (James ‘Kimo’ Williams) has no problems, probably because he also works at a pizza place and he makes the best brownies in the world. Except, they’re not ordinary brownies … hint hint hint….
Mark (Ethan Embry) only has one problem: his character, as written, is pretty much interchangeable with Eddie’s. But, fortunately, Embry gives such a totally weird performance that you never forget who he is.
Lucas (Rory Cochrane) tried to help Joe out by taking the previous night’s cash receipts to Atlantic City. Lucas, however, is not a very good gambler and ends up losing all of the money at the result of one roll of the dice. Lucas’s problem is that Joe is going to kill him. The solution is to spend almost the entire movie sitting on the break room couch and making snarky comments.
Gina’s problem is that everyone thinks that she’s a slut, mostly because that’s how the character is written. Fortunately, Gina is played by Renee Zellweger and she brings a lot of depth to an otherwise underwritten role. One of the film’s best moments is when Gina and Berko perform together because Zellweger really throws herself into the song. Watching that scene always makes me want to sing along with them. It’s funny that Zellweger has even a stronger Texas accent than I do and yet, she can really sing while I mostly certainly cannot.
Then there’s Andre! Andre’s problem is that he ends up getting cut out of the film. However, he’s still listed in the credits, which is how we know that he was played by Tobey Maguire.
A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is an artist. How can you not love a struggling artist? His problem is that he’s in love with Corey (Liv Tyler) but Corey is obsessed with losing her virginity to Rex Manning.
Actually, that’s not the only problem that Corey has. Corey, who is in high school but has recently been accepted to Harvard, is a driven overachiever. Occasionally, we see her popping a pill. Oh my God, is she using speed!? Of course. she is. How else is she going to be able to both study late and maintain her figure? If I don’t seem too concerned about Corey’s pills, it’s because I pretty much take the same thing to keep my ADD under control. They’ve worked wonders for me!
But not so much for Corey. In fact, they cause Corey to kinda freak out and attack a cut-out of Rex Manning. Fortunately, the solution to her drug problem is pretty simple. She just has to splash some water on her face.
As for her virginity problem, well … it is Rex Manning Day! Judging from this film and Stealing Beauty, it would appear that film goers in the mid-90s were obsessed with Liv Tyler losing her virginity.
Anyway, there are like a hundred overly critical things that I could say about Empire Records. I’ve seen this film a number of time and there are certain scenes that always make cringe — like Debra’s funeral or when Joe starts banging away on his drum set. A lot of the dialogue is overwritten and the whole things occasionally seems to be trying too hard.
And yet, I can’t dislike Empire Records. In fact, I actually really like it a lot. It’s just such an earnest and sincere movie that you can’t help but enjoy it. Meanwhile, the cast has so much energy and chemistry that they’re just fun to watch. This is one of those films where it’s best just to shut off your mind, say “Damn the man!,” and enjoy what you’re watching for what it is.
Add to that, I love that ending. Everyone dancing on top of the store? Perfect.