Movie for September 2014: How “Empire Records” Became The Unlikely Film Of A Generation
Engineered to be the teen-movie equivalent of the mid-’90s alt-rock zeitgeist, Empire Records flopped in the theaters, only to become a cult classic a generation later. For the first time, the people who made the movie talk about how it came together, why it bombed, and how it found its second life.
I remember watching Empire Records for the 12th time on the floor of my best friend’s basement, complete with green shag carpeting and wood paneling, and then watching it again as we fought sleep, somewhere around 2 a.m., with piles of candy. I watched it for the 20th time by myself, when I should’ve been at some cool-kids dance, and instead found myself at home, lights out, pretending I wasn’t sad or anxious or worried what this night might predict about the rest of my life.
The 27th time was with my group of three best friends, learning the “Say No More” dance the same way that Corey, Mark, and Gina do halfway through the movie. And I remember some night, halfway through college, all the friends back in our small town, bored, not old enough to buy beer and too good to sneak it from our parents, and amidst our ennui it became abundantly clear that all we really wanted to do with the rest of our night was acquire two pints of Ben & Jerry’s and watch Empire Records the way we always had and, to our minds, always would.
For our generation — a shoulder demographic between Generation X and the millennials — this was one of our movies, a film that managed, however oddly, to capture the ineffable feeling of being a (white, straight) quasi-alienated teenager in a very specific time. But Empire Records was no hit: It grossed a mere $250,000 in its two weeks in release in 1995. With a budget that topped $10 million, it’s not difficult to do the math: Empire Records was an unmitigated, unequivocal flop.
Yet like so many artistic disasters that go on to become cult classics, Empire Records flourished when it was ignored. Kids like me saw it in the video store, watched it on cable, found a random VHS copy, and thought the charm was their secret.
By the time I taught high school in 2011, the students knew the movie as well as I did. Their attraction to Empire Records (like their fixation on My So-Called Life and Clueless) had more to do with fetishizing an era before many of them were born, but it’s clear: The Empire lives on. In a vinyl reissue of the soundtrack released on Record Store Day; in internet celebrations of Rex Manning Day; in special screenings, quote-alongs, Facebook pages, endless GIFs, and truly spectacular Etsy creations.
The Empire Records plot is fairly straightforward: An employee of an independent record store, tasked with closing up the store for the night, discovers plans for a corporate takeover — a fate, as anyone familiar with ‘90s cultural politics knows, akin to capitalist colonialism. The employee thus takes the day’s earnings to Atlantic City, hoping to win enough to save the store. He fails, and the rest of the movie is ostensibly spent figuring out how to protect the store from encroaching Music Town overlords.
That’s just the scaffolding, though, on which the real charm of Empire Records is hung: For those who loved the movie, its indie versus corporate plot was always secondary. It was the movie’s depiction of misfit teens — and the interactions between them, all of which seemed so pregnant with exceptional meaning — that resonated. These characters — a good girl, a slutty girl, a gothy girl, an artist boy, an adorable weirdo, a beatnik, a too-cool rocker, a hippy stoner, a wannabe — with whom nearly any high schooler could identify or toward whom they could direct their desire. It was, as one crew member pointed out, Breakfast Club at the record store — but even weirder.
Today, most think it was a little movie that slipped through the cracks before several of the leads went on to major careers. Yet the real story of Empire Records is much more complex — and, ironically, mirrors the very struggle that the Empire Records store faced in its battle against corporate takeover. And nearly 20 years after the film’s release, just as a new generation of high school students fall in love with the film for entirely different reasons, here’s that story for the first time.
By Anne Helen Peterson
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BOOK FOR SEPTEMBER 2014: “The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook: A Radical Guide to Cutting Loose, Overcoming Blocks, & Writing the Best Songs of Your Life” by Karl Coryat and Nicholas Dobson
Stop pulling out your hair and crumpling up paper The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook blasts away your mental roadblocks so you can tap into your deepest creative resources. Whether you’re a total novice or a seasoned pro, whether you’re a pencil-and-paper songwriter or a gearhead with way too much recording equipment, whether you just want to go further as a songwriter or throw out everything and start over, The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook will revolutionize the way you write music. It outlines a radical new system – Immersion Music Method – designed to help you smash through creative block, become recklessly prolific, and make quantum leaps in your musical and compositional skills. Bursting with mind-blowing tips and games and tales from the trenches of extreme songwriting, The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook will show you how to summon those elusive moments of inspiration on command, resulting in rogue creativity and fulfillment you never dreamed possible. You’ll learn how to:
• Confront and slay your biggest songwriting phobias
• Roll over procrastination like an armored tank
• Form a self-motivated group of composer friends (a “songwriter lodge”)
• Concoct new musical styles like a mad scientist
• Use technology to supercharge your creativity
Amazon: paperwork $15.86
[Thanks to Andy Ard for the Book of the Month suggestion.]