In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.
‘A soundtrack in search of a movie’ was how Roger Ebert described Empire Records upon its release in 1995, and he wasn’t alone. While the film is now thought of as something of a cult classic, the film debuted to a low box-office and some scathing notices from the majority of critics.
The history of film is littered with productions that were met with indifferent, sometimes even hostile reactions from which they re-emerge years, even decades, later with respect and love, complete with a cult audience who quote the film at random intervals and start trends on Twitter based on their love of it.
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Blade Runner became a near-instant cult favourite when it was released on video in the mid-80s. Similarly, John Carpenter’s The Thing, which overcame less than favourable notices to become regarded as a classic work in its own right.
Teen movies sometimes have a similar manner of becoming favourites or being reappraised long after their releases, something that can be put down to the development in VHS and DVD where films could be reassessed, and be rediscovered by future generations, or from original audiences falling into the realm of nostalgia upon rewatching them.
Empire Records is one of those movies, and a lot of it also down to the fact that Allan Boyle put in front of the camera many faces who would become bigger names right after its release. Being distributed by Warner Bros. at the time (the rights now lay with 20th Century Fox, meaning that Disney now most likely owns it) meant that the trailer for the film was put in front of nearly every Warner Bros. VHS release and it always looked ‘cool’ to my eleven/twelve-year-old eyes.
I adored the film when I finally got around to renting it, but it was years later, when I discovered that it was somewhat panned by critics, that I was left to wonder if my love for it was simply down to my age. Subsequent television viewings (usually late-night slots on the BBC) confirmed to me that it was the critics that were wrong.
In hindsight, Empire Records is the type of cult film we never really get anymore; where a film has a somewhat negative time of it at the box office and with critics, but which gains an appreciative audience who are at a loss when it comes to renting the bigger, more well-known films at the video store and then pass the word around to their friends.
Produced by Regency Enterprises, the film was put into development a few days before another script for a teen movie arrived at their door. The second script was Clueless, but since they already had a teen movie in the works, they opted to pass on Amy Heckerling’s film in favour of Moyle’s.
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In terms of a business decision, it probably looked like the wrong one. Clueless was a massive success, launching the careers of Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, and would also lead to a television series that lasted for several seasons. All the while, Empire Records was met with indifference and struggled to find an audience at the box office.
Flash forward twenty years and if you were to go on to Twitter on April 8th, you’d more than likely find #RexManningDay trending, in celebration of the date the film takes place on. And if you’re not familiar with the film then you most likely to wonder – who the hell is Rex Manning?
Like the works of John Hughes, Empire Records takes place over the course of a single day, although the initial cut saw it take place over two days, until extensive editing to shorten its running time made it a single twenty four hour period. The day in the life feel of the theatrical cut invokes a similar structure to Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, representing a microcosm of the lives of the characters in a neatly structured way.
While it might share Hughes’ sense of structure, like Clueless the film represents where the teen movie genre was during the decade, at least in terms of mainstream studio product, but where Clueless was happier to throw itself into the rich and privileged to get its laughs and satire, Moyle’s film explores a set of characters lower on the class pole compared to Cher and her friends.
The central setting of a record store, and its superlative soundtrack, invokes a feeling similar to Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity (subsequently filmed twice, first as a John Cusack movie, and then as a television series with Zoe Kravitz), and its focus on characters that weren’t necessarily as glossy as the ones that we’d seen in Hughes’ works also gave it a feeling reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s films, even if Empire Records is a much more mainstream piece of work compared to Linklater’s more indie flavoured stories.
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Like so many films in the teen movie pantheon, the cast here was a list of soon to be famous names. The fact that Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone both starred in teen films in 1995 that would have their own impacts on the genre has a taste of irony to it given that they both appeared in the music video to ‘Crazy’, performed by Tyler’s father’s rock band.
The rest of the cast was filled out by the likes of Renee Zellweger, Robin Tunney, Johnny Whitworth, Rory Cochrane and Ethan Embry, all of whom would go on to varyingly successful careers but who would never struggle for work, with Tunney starring in the following year’s The Craft, and Zellweger becoming an instant star when she appeared opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire.
That the film had so many actors and actresses on the cusp of bigger things is something that can be seen as a validation of the film in retrospect, and with Rex Manning Day becoming an actual thing, it’s gratifying to see a sadly underappreciated gem finally have its moment in the sun.