The thing about this next movie is that it’s really kind of a mess. The emotional tone’s all over the place, there are big continuity errors, there are about four plotlines too many (and thus they all get shortchanged), some problems get solved way too easily (suicidal depression and drug addiction don’t just stop), and people get away with things they really shouldn’t in any kind of vaguely realistic world. It’s essentially a great soundtrack held together with some snappy and infinitely quotable one-liners in a decent script, and a cast much, much better than their one-note scripted characterization deserved.
It’s good, but not a great teen movie.
But man, the first time I saw it, I was 19 and staying at a friend’s house while we were putting together a play. We drank a bottle of wine, and watched the movie. Then she went to bed and I rewound it to the beginning (on VHS. Eleven years ago we still watched movies on VHS) and watched the whole thing again.
Because damn. I wanted to work there.
Oh boy. Okay.
Everyone works at Empire Records, an independent music store in New Jersey owned by jerk Mitchell, but managed by awesome Joe. Lucas, Joe’s employee (and, we later discover, foster son) is entrusted with the responsibility of closing for the first time. When Lucas discovers that Mitchell is about to make the store a franchise of chain Musictown, he grabs the day’s take of $9000, and heads off for Atlantic City, because, “in the immortal words of the Doors, the time to hesitate is through.”
He loses it all. Joe covers for him to Mitchell, and the Empire crew rally around, handing over anything they have to give. Finally, amiable stoner Mark gets the brilliant idea to have a fundraising party at the store, they raise enough money to cover the loss, and Joe tells Mitchell that he quits, and intends to open his own store – which would be in direct competition with Mitchell’s. Mitchell instead offers to sell Empire Records to Joe instead, cheap. Real cheap. Joe accepts, and the Empire is saved!
MEANWHILE, it’s Rex Manning Day! Former teen heartthrob Rex Manning is now a middle-aged poser desperately clinging to relevance, visiting Empire to sign records. While he seems to still have a number of fans, it’s all that worthy assistant Jane can do just to get him to sit in the chair. He’s offered sex by the virginal, Harvard-bound Corey, but manages to disgust her before her red bra comes off. Corey then slutshames her more knowledgeable friend Gina, who retaliates by offering Rex sex. When they come out of the copy room to the audience of Empire workers, he’s not even greeted with applause! Then some little punk called AJ tries to beat him up, everyone says they hate his record, it turns out Jane quit, and he tells them all to just fade away. But no! They will not, because they are relevant hip kids, and he’s a has-been. Jane comes back and asks Joe out.
MEANWHILE, sensitive artist AJ has been in love with Corey for years, but has resolved to tell her so at 1.37 exactly, that being an excellent time. When he does, however, she reveals that she just threw herself at Rex Manning, and he freaks out a bit because that is not how he thought this conversation would go in his head. Later, he gets to punch Rex for being an ass, but the day isn’t over until Corey tells him that she loves him too, and he’s stupid, and why isn’t he going to art school because he is SO talented? He reveals that he is! In Boston! So he can be near her. And she seriously swoons a little bit and they dance around and then they look nervously at each other for a really long time before they kiss, like the knowledge that they’re actually going to do this may be even better than the kiss itself, and my first real boyfriend’s name was AJ and he was not like this at all, movie, you betrayed me.
MEANWHILE, Deb, having had a bad time last night, and a bad time the night before and a bad time for a really long time, comes into work with a bandaged wound on her wrist and shaves off all her hair. She deflects all compassion and concern (but actually smiles when snarky Gina is just as snarky at her as ever, which I rather liked, because Gina takes a considered approach to treating Deb as she normally would, ie, a person who is mean to her, instead of as a fragile and pitiful thing), but when Corey rages at Gina for sleeping with Rex and Gina retaliates by revealing Corey’s amphetamine addiction, Corey starts screaming and throwing things around the store.
Deb steps up, and demands to be allowed to take care of Corey. She sticks Corey’s face in a sink full of water and apparently fixes the speed problem, seriously, movie, come on. Corey holds a “funeral” for Deb in the breakroom, where her friends and co-workers can let her know how much they miss her and want her to stay, which apparently helps fix Deb’s suicidal depression, SERIOUSLY, movie, COME ON. During the funeral, Gina confesses to wanting to sing in a band, and Lucas admits to wetting his bed until he was ten and then spending three years in the system until Joe came and got him out.
MEANWHILE, Lucas catches a young shoplifter (“What’s your name?” “Warren Beatty.”) who is taken away by police but probably just issued a really serious warning since the next thing you know he comes back and interrupts the funeral by waving a gun around and shooting up the store. Because these people are idiots, but really loyal idiots, they all come out onto the store floor. Deb talks to the gun, and Warren reveals that he’s really just sore that Lucas gets to stay at Empire despite stealing nine grand, and yet Joe will never give Warren a job. Except he totally will, after Warren is taken away by police again, because, heck, if the screwups can’t work at Empire, where CAN they work?
MEANWHILE Mark eats brownies made to Eddie’s special recipe (“And you know what that means! Extra sugar.”), Eddie serves pizza and records, and Berko stalks around being a guitar player and being not even ten percent good enough for Deb, who is my favourite. Gina sings at the party to save Empire, fulfilling her Dream.
And then everyone dances on the roof to “This is the Day”, by The The, (which is the best band name ever) in singles and duos and groups, mixing the genders up all over the place, and it’s beautiful and you forgive the movie for everything it did wrong.
Resist corporate monopoly.
We’re not talking subtle here – the tag on the poster is “They’re selling music, but not selling out.” The movie is very much in favour of the expression of individual identity, especially creatively, whether that be in dress, art, or music. The characters are all instantly recognisable archetypes, but there are a wide range of them, and the one thing that these disparate people can all agree on is that Musictown, which in the movie stands in for the most heinous form of selling out, will have no room at all for individualism.
This is probably best typified when Gina and Deb, the two employees who dislike each other the most, go over their new Musictown employee conduct sheets:
Deb: “No visible tattoos”.
Gina: “No revealing clothing”.
Deb: We’re both screwed. At least you’re used to it.
Gina: Now, Debra, don’t be bitter. Certainly with your ever-growing collection of flesh-mutilating silver appendages, and your brand new, neo-Nazi boot-camp makeover, the boys will come a-running.
Deb: Let’s not fight – let’s just rip.
And they do, for once in perfect accord.
Rex Manning is another symbol of selling out – his slick, soulless music video and obsession with personal appearance have much more to do with what music can get him – fame, money, sex with young women – than the music itself. Gina sleeping with him doesn’t just appall her friends because it was a mean thing obviously done in revenge for Corey slutshaming her, but because Rex Manning is a sellout who doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with sex with Gina.
Unlike Clueless, which came out in the same year, Empire Records fully embraces the grunge aesthetic, and – despite the wide range of musical genres actually employed in the movie – the grunge garage-band ideal of putting together a group with your friends and saying what you really feel. Participating in making music directly is key to three characters’ dreams: Gina, Mark (who wants to call his band ‘Marc’ for “that psychedelic, you know, trip thing”) and Joe, who used to be in a band and, at his most frustrated, turns on the stereo, sits at his drums and pounds out AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)”. Berko already has a band. And everyone else loves music, as consumers and as critics.
“This music is the glue of the world, Mark,” Eddie tells his compatriot, solemnly handing over a primer mixtape of classic rock. “It’s what holds it all together. Without this, life would be meaningless.”
Musictown is the Man, the enemy of teenagers, that smug suit who wants us all to be the same and hand over our money in drone-like accord. The phrase “Damn the Man” is a repeated motif. It comes up first when AJ mentions that his rent has been raised, so he could use the extra money. “Damn the man,” Lucas intones solemnly, from his place of disgrace on the couch. Later, owner Mitchell is directly associated with the menace of individualism and creativity being stamped out in the name of profit, with weary Joe explaining that the Man usually wins:
Lucas: Mitchell’s the Man, Joe.
Joe: And the Man calls all the shots.
Lucas: Damn the Man.
Joe: Let me explain it to you. Mitchell’s the Man. I’m the idiot. You’re the screw-up. And we are all losers. Welcome to Musictown.
And finally, Mark, with his inspired idea of a party, yells directly into the TV camera, “Damn the Man! Save the Empire!”
After that, the phrase turns up in posters and on buttons as assorted free spirits – visually associated to several musical sub-cultures – show up to damn the Man and save the Empire in the face of such niggling things as necessary permits to sell beer on the street and play live music outside.
And, having asserted their right to individual expression, the group can come together to dance on the roof: the dumb stoner and the Harvard-bound teen queen, the sensitive artist and the music executive, the hypersexualised girl with the short skirts and the hardcore “Sinead O’Rebellion” with the shaved head, the mystifying beatnik and the shoplifting juvenile delinquent. They’re all dancing, and making their boss, the man who made the place where they can all be together, join in the fun. Because places where you can be yourself are important.
And damn, for a little while, don’t we all want to work there?
– I seriously don’t like that the girl archetypes are “slutty”, “virginal speed freak” and “damaged”. Because the girls in question are played by Renee Zellweger, Liv Tyler and the absolutely amazing Robin Tunney, they each inject these characters with real presence and impressive depth, so that they come across as more than these archetypes. But I think the movie got very lucky with that casting. It could so easily have been terrible.
– I’ve bought this movie at least three times, and then left it behind as I travelled to various countries and Region codes. This time I bought it on iTunes, where I was FOOLED, fooled I say, into purchasing the extended edition cut, which, having seen before, I did not want. It adds ten minutes, and a few scenes that paper over some of the continuity holes (like why Corey is wearing that red bra), but apart from extended sexy AJ and Deb dancing (yes, please!) it slows down the movie’s pace. I recommend the original theatre showing. Damn the iTunes man.
– Do you want to see the full video of “Say No More”, by Sexy Rexy Manning? Yes. You do.