Man I miss going to record stores in the ’90s. As a kid I would spend a couple hours there every week or two with my dad, scouring the CD racks, discovering new artists, and listening to albums I couldn’t afford, hoping I’d get them for Christmas so I didn’t have to wait 3 years for them to wind up in the “Used” bin. Empire Records takes me back to a better time, evoking nostalgia for every bit of minutiae from that period: the listening booths, the $20 CDs, those weird plastic skeleton thingys imprisoning the jewel cases that had to be removed at the front counter. This movie, set and released in 1995, takes a nostalgic look at its own present time, fully aware of the era it’s currently in.

The film follows a group of employees at an independent record store in Delaware and takes place over a 24-hour period. Beginning in the wee hours of the a.m. when the store manager, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), allows his teen employee, Lucas (Rory Cochrane), to close up the store for the first time. Lucas, all alone in Joe’s office, discovers paperwork detailing the acquisition and conversion of Empire Records by the giant record store chain, Music Town. Upset about this revelation, Lucas takes $9000 out of the till and decides to go to Atlantic City to try to quadruple the money in hopes of saving the store he loves. He fails miserably, and later that morning Joe sees that the money is missing. Instead of firing Lucas, he does something odd and actually tries to cover for him to their slimy owner, Mitchell (Ben Bode). See, Joe is significantly older than his teenaged employees and views his staff as a sort of family. He gets mad at them, but loves them all and never wants them out of a job.

The rest of the film is spent developing the intertwining stories of each store employee throughout the day as they have their own issues to work out amidst also trying to save their store. Filled with great characters, each with his or her own unique personality, Empire Records sees so many different dynamics unfold. Somehow the stream-of-conscious and episodic narrative all adds up in the end, creating an impressively consistent tone from start to finish.

The cast is very strong from top to bottom, featuring the likes of Renée Zellweger, Liv Tyler, and Ethan Embry, among others. Director Allan Moyle does a great job with the relative newcomers and nabs some effortless performances from just about everybody.

The humor is dry and subtle enough that it doesn’t undermine the more serious and, at times, heavy moments. While the movie is truly a comedy, it also balances poeticism and sentimentality with ease without becoming sappy.

Empire Records isn’t overly concerned with music snobbery, and recognizes that musical taste is subjective. Instead, the film relishes in the different characters that make up our culture and finds beauty in that eclecticism. Because it shouldn’t matter what music you’re into, since each genre adds value to somebody’s life in some way. Those particular sounds we may not be fond of personally can mean the world to the person next to us, encouraging empathy for those with much different tastes and hopefully opening up our own minds to understanding one another.

Deceptively, Empire Records is an important movie in hindsight, especially considering today’s society where we feel like we can only hang out with like-minded individuals, allergic to those who don’t agree with our way of thinking or doing things. But at the same time, this film captures the zeitgeist of a bygone era that most of us long to return to. And perhaps those two sentiments aren’t mutually exclusive. All I know is the ’90s were truly awesome.

Double Feature With:

Can’t Hardly Wait (1998).

About the Author: Ethan Brehm

Ethan Brehm

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