Some films capture the zeitgeist so perfectly that they end up forming a kind of feedback loop through which they shape and mold that zeitgeist. Empire Records (1995) is one of those films. It captured a moment of my generation’s youth. This is a film that imbued us with a love of indie record stores and quirky characters. Empire Records invited us to be the most far out versions of ourselves and to love every second of it. This film was our The Breakfast Club (1985), it was our American Graffiti (1973). The soundtrack of Empire Records was the soundtrack for the wickedly cool nerds and still is.
I first saw Empire Records at a friend’s house. His older sister had rented it on tape from our local mom and pop video store (it was the mid-nineties after all) and she insisted we watch it with her. I was equal parts frightened of my friend’s older sister and totally in awe of her. She’d already shown us The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) so in my mind she could do no wrong. Seeing Empire Records initiated me into a community that I had no idea how to define. I didn’t even realize I found something approximating the kinds of relationships that are in the film in my own life until much later. When I did finally realize this, I knew I had found myself.
Filmmaker Allan Moyle has a knack for making films about communities that are sewn together through shared musical experiences. In many ways Empire Records is a closed in version of his masterpiece Times Square (1980). In the earlier film it’s music that empowers teenaged girls all over New York City while in Empire Records the music links and empowers the employees of the titular record store. The circuit may have shrunk down but the profundities have not lost any of their urgency or relevance. Both films even close the same way with a jam session on a roof top.
The space of the record store that Empire Records puts forth is both permissive and accepting. It is the total opposite of the elitism in High Fidelity (1999) to which it is so often compared. Empire Records is truly an ensemble piece wherein every character gets their due screen time and is allowed to flourish and simply be, free of judgement. Within the confines of that shop Moyle gives his audience a potential utopia to aspire too.
Yes I am probably being hyperbolic and neglecting my call to critical objectivity. So what? Sometimes a film embodies a culture and must be celebrated on those terms. Sometimes, though rarely, a film experience truly is an event. In my case it was a life changing event.