If Only Real Life Could Be Like Empire Records

Not only was this brilliantly cheesy ‘90s coming-of-age film criminally underrated, but its depiction of good-time record shop fun is more touching now than ever before

These days, sticking it to The Man is the sort of risibly hoary practice best left to certain dreadlock-sporting has-beens fighting for their right to rock up to a festival an hour late. But 15 years ago this week, a film was released about music sticking it to the corporate old codger in all the most clichéd of ways – mostly by talking about it a lot and not really doing anything – but also managing to be totally brilliant.


Empire Records made like a cross between John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and High Fidelity (the book of which was first published that same year), charting a day in the lives of a group of teenage record store employees (featuring Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler) fighting to save their shop from being taken over by the Music Town chain.

Which, according to teenage logic, entails putting the shift’s takings on a Craps board at the local casino in an attempt to treble the profits and save the day. And then losing $9,000.

It was panned on release – Rotten Tomatoes showed a 24 per cent approval rating, with deluded critics claiming that it was artificial, predictable and dull. Alright, in parts it’s cheesy, with characters that make up every ’90s teenage movie trope (the girl bound for Harvard, the lovesick puppy chasing her, the floozy, the troubled headcase) and a heartthrob who later went on to star in, erm, Emmerdale. But through the halcyon glow of nostalgia, it’s become a classic.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Juno – the wise-cracking teens in those films wouldn’t have existed were it not for Empire Records, which is laced with amazingly quotable teenage pat philosophy – like, “What’s up with today, today?” and, “I am guided by a force much greater than luck”.


What makes it even more poignant, though, is that, according to Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing, around 550 record shops in the UK have closed down in the last four years alone. The Empire Records dream of rolling up hungover from last night’s gig and goofing around with your friends while occasionally doing some dusting has been quashed by uniform chainstores masquerading as record shops – that expect you to actually do work. Pfft!

In the film, the day is saved by the staff holding a benefit gig on the roof – OK, a predictable ending, but not an inevitable one, like the unhappy endings of most indie record shops. Like they said, damn the man, save the Empire.

This article originally appeared in the September 18 issue of NME

Subscribe here and get NME for £1 a week, or get this week’s digital issue