‘Don’t let the Man get you down.’ That teen angst/rebellion catchphase that everybody understands but doesn’t actually mean anything is Empire Records’ most cherished line of dialogue, and it also nicely captures the film’s theme: Rebellion is wonderful when it doesn’t mean anything. Empire is not alone. A whole spat of teen films came out in the latter half of the 1990s, trying to represent the dissonant voice of the growing ‘alternative’ movement (e.g. grunge, Nirvana, etc.): Reality Bites being the best example. But Empire manages overcome all the rest just by the sheer number of teen film tropes and stereotypes it is able to cram into one film.
What do you do when you discover that evil capitalists are secretly planning to turn the fun, laid back, quirky independent music store you work at into a ‘Music Town’ (e.g. Music Warehouse, Tower Records, etc.)? Why you steal the nightly deposit and take it to Atlantic City, of course. Or so confused outsider Lukas (Rory Cochrane) assumes. But after an uninspired – both visually and luck-wise – trip to the craps table, Lukas is forced to return empty handed and face the music (pun intended). However, lucky Lukas has the coolest boss in the whole world, and they get together with the rest of the Empire Records crew to fix the money problem and keep the store’s capitalist pig owner and the threat of Music Town at bay.
But in addition to this loose, loose narrative thread — which somehow manages to hold the film together — every store employee, being that they are ‘at that age,’ has his or her own problems to deal with. A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is a conflicted artist type who can’t make up his mind to go to art school or stay at Empire (tough choice!) and who is also in love with fellow co-worker Corey (Liv Tyler). But Corey is the beautiful, smart, upwardly mobile type who is under so much pressure from her Dad and her acceptance to Harvard that she pops speed like candy. However, in addition to her ‘out of control’ drug problem (or at least that’s the way everyone acts when they find out) she is in love not with A.J. but with aging and fading singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), who, conveniently enough, is making an in-store appearance on this one crazy day at Empire.
But wait there’s more! Gina (Renée Zellweger, in an equally bad early role) is so afraid of connection that she sleeps with every guy she meets and after at tiff with Corey seduces Rex Manning just to get back at her. But after the deed is done, Gina, of course, feels bad and begins to realize the error of her ways. Debra (Robin Tunney) is so alienated that upon arriving to work after a failed suicide attempt the night before, she cuts off all her hair! And all the co-works concern can’t put Debra back together again. Warren (Brendan Sexton III) gets caught shoplifting by Lukas, but he too breaks down after coming back with a gun to get even, when the loving staff of Empire discovers that Warren just needs acceptance. Warren, after the cops let him go, gets job at Empire and becomes the newest addition to Joe’s band of outsiders.
The film culminates when the gang stages a fake funeral for Debra in order to show her what it would really be like to die. With everyone gathered around her body, the truth comes out: they’re all different in special ways, but, more importantly, they’re all the same and share a common bond. Thus in one fell-swoop, everybody’s problems and differences are erased (a la John Hughes, complete with equally clichéd character development). The gang can now focus on the issue at hand – saving the store. And it is by a stroke of genius that the answer is found: a party. Who would have ever thought – a party at the end of teen film? Mark (Ethan Embry) takes advantage of the press which has gathered to cover Warren’s revenge and spreads the word. You can probably guess the rest.
Despite the obviousness of the plot, the uninspired and typically developed characters, and the countless other teen film clichés scattered throughout, Empire Records is fun. It has a good soundtrack, lots of free-for-all dance scenes, and derision toward aging singers and capitalists. And you just can’t get enough of that.