Today is a special day for nineties culture connoisseurs—a blessed day. It’s Rex Manning day!
Yes, though you may have lost track of time, it is April 8th, the date on which most of Empire Records takes place. The oh-so-of-the-moment teen comedy was a flop when it was released 25 years ago, but in the decades since, it’s become a cult classic, and I think that’s because it channeled an ideal of analog community that was dated even then, and yet encompassed a dream we wish we could still live and try to achieve.
I didn’t watch Empire Records until maybe 1996 or ’97. I knew Liv Tyler from That Thing You Do and also as “the girl from the Aerosmith video where she and Alicia Silverstone are kinda lesbians?” but I mainly picked it up because it had Robin Tunney in it, and like so many girls in the ’90s, I was obsessed with The Craft.
But even then, the film felt like it was from a different world. Maybe it was all the 20-somethings playing teens (at least, I think they were supposed to be teens). Maybe it was the plot, about the band of losers and misfits at a local record store that stands up against selling out to a national chain, that felt a bit quaint. I lived in the suburbs and got my CDs from the local mega-mart, or maybe tower Records if it was something super rare.
But looking back on Empire Records now? Oh my god, it’s another universe.
Remember music videos that aired on TV? Remember CDs and records? Remember when all art and entertainment from the entirety of human history wasn’t readily available with a click on your phone? Remember when we all owned cute plaid mini skirts? Wait, that last one might have just been me, but it’s a trend I wouldn’t mind getting a reboot. The focus on the “real” and “authentic” experience of music as a personal and tangible thing, though … It seems so far off.
Let me be clear: The fashion and music and just the feeling of this movie are burned into my soul, not just because it was fun, but it was such a perfect distillation of a very specific time. When guys wore flannel to show they were sensitive, and depression and suicide still somehow became an easily resolved side plot.
Empire Records was supposed to be a teen comedy, but now it reads like a sort of Gen X fantasy of a world that was already disappearing when it came out—that era when it was local record stores and video rental palaces that curated content, made up of just a devoted few. Now, everyone has an opinion on what’s good and defines their personality on the art they love. Now we’re all curators.
This movie was hipster before hipster was even a thing. It was an anti-corporate, alt-culture manifesto that somehow both foretold where we are now when everyone has an opinion, but imagined it in a fading world whose end now seems inevitable. It was a love letter to a kind of consumption that the creators didn’t know was completely doomed, but a view of art that still endures.
It was also just a fun little movie, showcasing an early turn by Renee Zellweger and boasting, of course, a killer soundtrack whose tracklist reads like a “best of the nineties” tribute album. It wasn’t the greatest movie, but it was special, and it endures because of that.
(image: Warner Bros.)
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