Empire Records may not be a musical, but without music, it wouldn’t really have much of a story, would it? It does fit into the main prerequisite for this week: it was a total bomb on release before finding an audience that was ready for it years after it was actually made. This coming of age and battle against the corporation film may have just been too much for 1995, but in 2019? It fits right in.
Writer Carol Heikkinen supposedly worked at a Tower Records store (IMDB claims that it was store #166 at Phoenix’s Christown Mall) and used tons of stories that she had experienced while working there.
This is the story of 24 hours in the life of Delaware’s Empire Records, an independent music store. It starts when Joe (Anthony LaPaglia, The Client, Annabelle: Creation), the store manager, allows Lucas (Rory Cochrane, Dazed and Confused) to close the store alone for the first time.
That’s when he learns that Music Town, a national entertainment big box store, is buying Empire Records. To keep its spirit of independence alive, he takes all $9,000 from that day’s sales and sets out to quadruple it in Atlantic City. Sure, he doubles it, but Lucas’ luck could never hold out.
The next morning, a decimated Luchas is found by A.J. (Johnny Whitworth, who ended up being Blackout in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance before anyone cared about superhero movies) and Mark (Ethan Embry, Pete on Sneaky Pete). He tells the two of them of his plight as they try to keep him away from Joe, who is looking for the missing deposit once the bank and the actual owner call.
The real heart of Empire Records lies within the kids that work there, like Corey (Liv Tyler), Gina (an impossibly young Renée Zellweger), the suicidal and soon-to-be bald Deb (Robin Tunney, The Craft) and her hanger-on boyfriend Berko (Coyote Shivers, who was married to Liv Tyler’s mom at the time, former groupie Bebe Buell).
The truth of it all is that Joe had wanted to become co-owner all along and had hoped to use that $9,000 to make it happen, keeping the store independent. Meanwhile, all hell is breaking loose because the store is dealing with Rex Manning Day.
Yes, former 80’s pop star Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) is coming to the store, which has a line of older women and gay men ready to greet him. The store employees and even Rex’s assistant (Debi Mazar, who continually wins me over in small roles) openly hate the singer, but Corey has been planning to give him her virginity. He blows her off and ends up sleeping with her best friend, Gina, as all hell breaks loose.
So much of Empire Records really does hold true to the hijinks ensue manifesto. It’s an episodic account of this one big day in the heart of a record store, complete with shoplifters being converted into employees, a mock funeral for Deb to cheer her up, an all-night benefit to “Save the Empire” and love winning against all costs. Oh yeah and Gwar shows up.
It’s amazing that this movie even made it on the screen, as it was severely edited in post-production, with three significant characters and 40 minutes of footage ending up on the cutting room floor.
Reviewers said things like the movie was a “soundtrack in search of a movie,” “deserved a bullet to put it out of its misery” and it was a “lost cause.” That said — the soundtrack album peaked at #63 on the Billboard charts and The Gin Blossoms’ “Til I Hear It From You” and Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You” made it into the top 40.
Today, a film that only made $300,000 on initial release plays revival houses and has enjoyed several home video re-releases. April 8th has now become Rex Manning Day to so many people now.
Sadly, this movie may not mean much to kids today, as music stores have disappeared. Yes. even the big stores like Music Town.
BONUS: Listen to Becca and I talk about this movie on our podcast.
Maxwell Caulfield, who I believe is underated as an actor, is excellent in this. He nails the a-hole, washed up pop star perfectly. (He’s fantastic in The Boys Next Door).
A doppelganger to Empire Records is A Matter of Degrees. “A soundtrack in search of movie” describes that movie as well. You go into both thinking this will be a cool movie about working in a record store or (college) radio stations (which I have done both) and you come out with, well, Singles, itself just television’s Friends . . . with grunge tunes.
Today I look back on Singles, as with Empire Record, with a nostalgia-filled heart. But at the time of release, I shrugged at them both. Especially Singles. I was waiting for “Ross and Rachel” to show up. But my date liked it. I had to break up with her after that one.
Truth be told: my store sold a LOT of the soundtracks for Empire and Singles. A Matter of Degrees was impossible to find. Atlantic Records let it die on the vine. Thanks to eBay it is easy to find and I recommend it as nice mircocosm of alt-college rock. Same for Empire.
I still listen to Singles, the Empire, and Degrees soundtracks, as they are great alt-rock compilation albums.
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