One of the greatest trends to come along in the movie business was the independent movie craze of the 90s. In the first half of the 90s several talented unknown writer-directors made movies on shoe-string budgets that went on to become major hits. Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kevin Smith’s Clerks en Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi. Movies that were sometimes completely self-funded and shot at somebody’s workplace. Once a formula is tried and proven to work, leave it up to Hollywood to go all in resulting in one of the many copycats with Empire Records.
I never saw Empire Records until now. Somehow this movie never appeared on my radar until recently. While doing my review on End Of Days I went through the filmography of Robin Tunney. I recpognized the poster and her shaved head on it intrigued me so I decided to put it on.
Empire Records flopped on release but was a hit on home video. Something that happens often with this type of movie. Kevin Smith’s Mallrats was released the same weekend and did pretty much the same thing. And that movie is probably one of my favorite comedies of all time.
Empire Records seems to take inspiration from Smith’s previous movie Clerks and almost feels like something of a companion piece to Mallrats. The movie is almost entirely set in one location, an independent record store, and follows a day in the life of its employees. All quirky teens dealing with their own personal issues.
As an independent movie, the cast is filled with unknown actors. Or at least unknown at the time. There are some familiar faces among them. The aforementioned Robin Tunney plays the depressed Debra. Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler play best friends who get into a rift when one of them has sex with the crush of another.
The movie is the epitome of the 90s. The movie is set in a record store, remember those? The main plot mostly revolves around making enough money to keep the record store from becoming a chain store. Watching a plot like that today is like watching people on the Titanic quibble about what to wear to dinner tonight.
To be honest, becoming a chain store with strict rules might do the store some good. There are way too many employees for a store this size and most of them are never seen working. This is one of those movies in which the employee part of the store is at least twice the size than the actual shopping floor.
But that’s nitpicking. A movie like Empire Records is all about the interactions between the quirky characters, the snappy dialogue and the situational comedy. While never it never reaches the levels of Kevin Smith, Empire Records contains plenty of memorable scenes and lines.
It’s easy to see why this movie did better on home video. Empire Records is one of those 90s word of mouth movies. The hidden treasures that your best friend would suddenly suggest to you. I watched Mallrats because it had a 4 star rating in my TV-guide. After watching it I recommended it to all my friends, lent out the VHS-tape with the TV recording and even had a viewing party at my place. If somebody I knew had picked up Empire Records back then, I’m sure it would have done the rounds the same way.
On the other hand, a first viewing after 28 years of its release did gave me a nice pure trip down nostalgia lane.