Revisited: Twenty Years On, ‘Empire Records’ Doesn’t Actually Make Any Sense
Because there's nothing like re-watching an old favourite, and ruining everything in the process.
This year, Empire Records turns twenty years old, which is either meaningless or terrifying depending on which side of thirty you are. For lovers of the film, I have one question: Have you watched lately? Away from the sleepovers, and teenage group hangs?
If you haven’t, I’ve got something devastating to tell you: this movie doesn’t make any damn sense. Upon re-watching, it will make you furrow your brow, scratch your head and embark upon every other clichéd physical manifestation of confusion.
Maybe it never made sense. Maybe we all just got caught up in the rock music and the crop tops and the now-outdated idea that working in a record store is some sort of sexy, teenage Mecca. It didn’t get great reviews at the time (Roger Ebert gave it one and a half stars), and even the best reviews seemed to be clutching at straws (the pull quotes on my DVD say “A killer soundtrack!” and “Young delightful cast!”).
Rewatching it now, it becomes clear why: Empire Records is like reading a book that has every third page torn out, barely indulging even a smidge of logic. Corey, AJ, Deborah, Gina, Lucas and Mark – I’m so sorry.
Joe Is A Terrible Boss, And Possibly A Sociopath:
Joe, I’m really not surprised that your business is failing. I am not surprised that you couldn’t scrap together the cash to become a partner of Empire (also, why did you keep so much of your money in cash?). Staying open until midnight does seem like a cool, edgy thing to do, I’ll give you that — but why are there so many people rostered on at the same time? There are SEVEN PEOPLE working at one point, not including Lucas. And they don’t even work!
They dance and sing and sit around drawing weird pictures, or shaving their hair, or gluing coins to the floor (!); they’re moshing in the store, seducing celebrities, and eating pot brownies.
They fake funerals, and eat all the sugar, and kind of move feather dusters through the air without actually dusting anything.
This is a terrible group of employees.
But: $9000 is a pretty good daily takings for a business that is just scraping by, even if you do employ hundreds more staff than you need to. You drive some sort of fancy pants car, are dripping in jewellery, and keep literal cigars in your office. Are you running a record store or a speakeasy, Joe? Where’s all the money going, Joe?
Swept Under The Rug: A Suicidal Teenager
Okaaaaay, let’s roleplay: say a teenage employee comes to work with a fresh bandage on her wrist and immediately locks herself in the bathroom with scissors and an electric razor that she brought with her. Do you just raise your eyebrows at everyone else, and then leave her alone?
NO, YOU DON’T LEAVE HER ALONE YOU DUMBELLS. JESUS CHRIST.
I know, I know: they’re a bunch of teenagers. But Joe could probably do something.
Despite Deborah’s flippant response when questioned about her suicide attempt (“I went to rock’n’roll heaven and I wasn’t on the guest list”), it’s obvious to everyone with a working brain that she’s not doing great. She’s open about the fact that she’s been unwell for a while, but because she’s in the store everyone is like, “Yeah cool, she’s fine” — so they let her lock herself in a bathroom with blades.
This girl is straight up telling you that she recently tried to kill herself, and this is your response?
Oh, wait! Joe does try and talk to Deb, when he finds her sitting on the floor of a listening booth.
Joe: “Hey, I heard you tried to kill yourself.”
Deb: “Fix me, I’ll listen.”
Joe: *gives her an awkward look* “Ah, you’re doing a great job, keep up the good work!”
*Joe runs away*
Joe doesn’t want to deal with the self-harm girl’s cry for help, so he does what any responsible adult would do: he lets the kids have a fake funeral in the back room! Kids who are so ill-equipped to deal with so much real-world gravitas that they start talking about their own problems instead.
Joe, it’s really time to step in at this point.
It’s probably lucky, then, that a shoplifting kid comes into the store with a gun to end this failed warm-fuzzy attempt.
Oh, did I not mention that a kid holds up the store with a gun? And Joe lets his staff in the same room as him? And Deb stands in front of the gun, definitely to protect her co-workers and definitely, 100% not because she’s suicidal? Argh!
Swept Under The Rug: Illegal Sex
So Corey wants to lose her virginity to Rex Manning — despite the fact that she’s probably the hottest piece that has ever existed/will exist, and he’s an old guy with an orange face.
Like, whatever, let’s pretend that make sense. He is DTF, she freaks out and runs away, and then she takes it out on Gina and slut shames her to high heaven.
Gina, that’s EXACTLY what she’s saying!
It’s kinda what Deb is saying, too.
In retaliation, Gina has sex with Rex Manning in the back room of Empire — just to prove that she can. All of this is not unremarkable – teenage girls can be horrible to each other, this is a film, etc. – but what is remarkable is that when Joe realises that Rex Manning and Gina are having sex next to his office, he doesn’t bust in and say, “Hey, get your hands off my teenage employee, this is well illegal”. He just sorts of stands outside the door… and listens?
It’s not until AJ jumps on top of Manning that Joe springs into action and ejects him from his store. And then everyone blames Gina. Because it’s obviously all her fault.
Swept Under The Rug: Corey Is A Drug Addict
Corey feels tremendous pressure from her parents to go to an Ivy League school, a burden that she manages by taking pills. Ah, kids! This is kept a secret until Gina reveals to everyone that she’s a “closet speed freak” — a revelation that causes Corey to cry, shriek, throw things, and knock over several CD wracks. It takes FIVE GUYS to restrain her, while she screams “NOTHING IS EVER FINE!”
Woah, big wake up call, right? Perhaps a sign that Corey is hitting that nose candy a little too hard; that she needs to keep things in perspective, and remember that her friends love her for who she is?
Haha. Nah, they don’t mention it again. She’s probably high as kite for the rest of the 78 dancing montages of the film.
Most Of The Movie Is Dancing Montages
Hey, I love a montage! That scene in Clueless with all the hairdryers and clothes and mirrors and white people and three non-white people – classic! But while in Clueless, these montages actually added to the plot, on Empire Records they seem to serve no purpose except for ‘these humans have feet, look at how they move’.
All up, there are seven musical montages in Empire Records. Let’s say each goes for a minimum of two minutes: that is 14 minutes out of 91 minutes. At least one sixth of this movie is montage. How about spending less time dancing on the roof and more time with plot development, hey pals?
They dance when they open the shop. They dance when they set up Rex Manning Day. There’s a montage of them taking a photo of a shoplifter. There’s a montage of people listening to music around the store. There’s a montage to people dancing around the store. There’s another dance montage while Gina and Rex Manning have sex. It ends with a reeeeaally long montage.
Is this movie a montage? Am I a montage? Send help.
The Ending Is Nonsensical
Movies don’t have to make sense, nor do they have to provide you with closure (see also: your first love). But if in its third act a film is like ‘Hey! Let’s do X to save the X!’, then you can pretty count on a straightforward narrative to follow. Right?
WRONG! Oh, so wrong!
After Warren the shoplift kid threatens everyone with an empty gun (hahah, I don’t know), everyone gives Lucas money to pay back Joe, so he can buy a stake in Empire Records. They don’t have enough money, so then they’re like, ‘Hey, let’s have a concert to raise the money!’ Cool idea, kids!
Except that it’s a FREE CONCERT in which you are providing KEGS AND KEGS OF BEER for FREE. FREE. What? Why bother with two jars asking for money when you could have just, I don’t, CHARGED FOR THE CONCERT? Urgh, you guys.
Joe doesn’t care about anything anymore, so quits Empire to open his own record store — a dream that seems fruitless given he has no money or business sense.
As for everyone else, they’re doing fine: Gina is realising her dream of singing in a band, a desire she has held for at least 15 minutes! Deb is laughing about her suicide attempt! Corey yells at AJ, definitely not because she’s high, but because she thinks he should go to art school! AJ is relieved, because apparently this was up for debate at one point! And then everyone dances on the roof for what feels like 45 minutes.
I can’t help but wonder what what will happen to Joe once people stop buying CDs.
Sinead Stubbins is a writer from Melbourne. She tweets from @sineadstubbins