More than 100,000 small businesses have met their demise as a result of the Covid pandemic. Independent businesses represent multiple aspects of freedom and supporting local is more important now than ever before. Freedom of expression is of utmost importance and allows work to become a place of solace because of the supportive, collaborative environment among coworkers.
Upon its release 25 years ago, Empire Records typified independent business culture by providing a glimpse into first jobs, first loves, and an anthem that still resonates today as a group of passionate misfits fight for their company to not sell out.
Everyone remembers their first job as a teenager. During those years, the world is still full of possibilities but at the same time seems like one long torment, at least until graduation. Writer Carol Heikkinen clearly understood the chaotic emotional range of teenagers back in 1995 when she wrote Empire Records and then later in 2000 when she wrote ballerina dance drama Center Stage. Unrequited love seems like the end of the world; no matter how many A’s you get in school, you still don’t meet the expectations of your demanding parents; and the only catharsis you can achieve is when you play your favorite record (or CD) to tap out from the world.
Empire Records follows a group of young coworkers and their boss who experience one hell of a day, Rex Manning Day to be exact. The film opens with Lucas (Rory Cochrane) blowing $9,000 in Atlantic City after his boss Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) asks him to count all of the day’s earnings (twice) and close up the store. His attempt to save Empire from selling out to a corporate chain store called Music Town (AKA “The Man”) ultimately fails and becomes big gossip the next morning at work. Lucas emphasizes that “responsibility like this requires the obedience of a saint”– a typical teenage response and the kind of mindset that would drive a boss mad. Lucas and Joe’s relationship is one of the more heartfelt aspects of the film.
Despite Lucas’s extreme negligence, Joe still finds ways to be a support for him. He sits down on the couch in the break area and asks Lucas if he is in trouble and if he needs money, to know that he can always talk to him. It’s rare to have a manager at any job care about their employees personally, let alone after they royally fuck up. However, the relationship between Joe and Lucas serves as an example that it is possible and just one of the perks of working for a small business. There is a more compassionate culture because everyone knows each other better; employees aren’t just disposable bodies or a number in a database. In a way, they’re a family.
As the rest of the staff trickle in for their shifts, each character represents a certain part of teenage angst. A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) is an artistic hopeless romantic and decides by exactly 1:37 pm he is finally going to proclaim his love to bookworm perfectionist Corey (Liv Tyler) before she heads off to Harvard. Mark (Ethan Embry) is the fun-loving goofball of the bunch who maintains an air of positivity despite more serious issues going on with coworkers like Debra (Robin Tunney), who tried to commit suicide the night before with a plastic Bic Lady razor. Gina (Renee Zellweger) navigates her sexuality throughout the film as she vies for every guy’s attention, but also expresses envy towards Corey’s seemingly innocent, virginal demeanor.
Their interactions and routines help each of them get through their shifts and the various issues they’re each facing in their personal lives. Every morning, they draw peanut M&M’s and whomever picks the same color as the person who opens the pack gets to choose the music they play while everyone sets up for the day. The staff are also able to take small breaks throughout their shift to chat or regroup. These kinds of morning routines and quick escapes are so relatable in small business culture. Sometimes stepping outside for five minutes of fresh air or having your coworker sweetly dab cold water on your face after they saw you cry is all you really need. And the smallest gestures like a coworker making you a mixed CD or lending you a record you just have to hear can alleviate an otherwise debilitating feeling of loneliness. When times are tough, the Empire staff know how to cheer each other up whether that be throwing a fake funeral for Deb or baking pot brownies for Mark. They still get the job done, but they get it done in their own unique way and with support from one another.
Having this sort of freedom on the clock to take a mental health break is so crucial, but larger corporations can lose sight of that. It’s the small businesses that truly value people over productivity and realize that investing in individuals and doing what you need to in order to help them will in turn make for a stronger performance outcome.
Joe has to put out one fire after another because it is Rex Manning Day, an epic in-store record signing featuring washed-up singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caufield) greeting fans and trying to hook up with whatever girl will feed his ego. Drenched in self-tanner and sporting a purple satin cowboy shirt, Manning encompasses some of the more flamboyant aspects of ‘90s pop stardom. The nostalgia really hits home in the grunge and club kid-inspired costume design courtesy of Susan Lyall. From Corey’s plaid mini skirt and combat boots to Mark’s baggy Chainsaw Kittens t-shirt and A.J.’s patched, ripped jeans, the costumes are still talked about years later.
Anyone who has worked for an independent business knows how much it means to be able to wear whatever clothes you want (within reason, obviously). That freedom of expression is especially important to these young characters as they not only navigate what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but also face the traits about themselves that they aren’t comfortable with showing others. This is also emphasized through the film’s dynamic soundtrack. Edwyn Collins’ “A Girl Like You”, “Liar” by The Cranberries, and “I Don’t Want To Live Today” by the Ape Hangers capture some of the more sentimental scenes in the store. At the end of the film, Coyote Shivers’ “Sugarhigh” serves as a climax while the gang plays a show at the top of the building at midnight in order to raise money to save Empire once and for all. Music plays a huge role in the film not just because a record store is the setting, but it’s also an emotional map for each character and captures a zeitgeist for the times.
Director Allan Moyle’s film may not be a perfect one, but it’s fun as hell and serves as an important reminder about what people love about small, independent businesses while also encapsulating life as a teenager in the ‘90s. To some, enforcing rules like no visible tattoos and wearing mundane uniforms can make working on the clock feel like their soul is slowly dying. Corporate conglomerates have the tendency to diminish freedom of expression in numerous ways, which is why 25 years later, Empire Records still serves as one of the great odes to independent businesses and a middle finger to the man.
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