Empire Records: 90s cult classic starring Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger is ripe for a comeback

What’s not to love about a band of scrappy teenage misfits and a music store so cool even shoplifters wanted to work there?

If the idea of a “dream job” is a myth, the employees at indie record store Empire Records didn’t get that memo. For them – self-identifying misfits and weirdos, prone to petty crime – the shop floor was a place where obeying societal norms didn’t count for much.

It’s 1995 in Delaware, US, an era in which music was becoming increasingly commodified with the rise of CD sales, and placing celebrities on a Swarovski crystal pedestal was considered the norm. Inevitably, everything that was once good and sacred about music fandom was under threat.

The film turns 25 this year and it’s having a moment. A cinematic underdog that bombed on release, it’s now a respected cultural touchstone. It’s not just a heady dose of nostalgia for an era where dancing on rooftops or singing along with the Cranberries was normal. It’s also grown into a go-to comfort watch for a generation who might need to remember the value of being understood over betraying their sense of self for a bit of easy cash and glory.

The plot follows a day in the life of a gang of teenaged staff as they realise that their place of work is being sold to a soulless corporate giant. Gambling money away in Atlantic City and an in-store event for a one-hit wonder isn’t helping the crisis. Not willing to give up without a fight, they decide to put on a raging street party for the neighbourhood. Their grand plan? Take back power by raising the money to save their beloved record store.

Anthony LaPaglia holding a gun and looking sceptically at someone not in frame
Anthony LaPaglia, one of the talented cast of Empire Records who went on to bigger things. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

The film gestures towards the tropes of a workplace comedy, without veering too far into the modern-day bureaucracy of Parks and Recreation or the subtle indignities of service work in Party Down. At Empire Records, time stopped and customers were willing to wait out major life crises or call back again after team bonding activities wrapped up.

For a film about fandom, not everyone in the industry understood the appeal. Critic Roger Ebert famously gave the film a terrible review during its initial theatrical release. He confidently wrote it off as a 1.5-star-rated “lost cause” but (rightfully) predicted that the entire cast had better projects ahead of them. Empire’s store manager (Anthony LaPaglia) went on to win a Golden Globe. The wild child who wants to sing in a band (Renée Zellweger) went on to star in Jerry Maguire. The Harvard-bound good-girl-turned-celebrity-scandal (Liv Tyler) matured into an elf maiden in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And risk-taking gambler and manager-in-training (Rory Cochrane) went on to a bigger part in another cult hit, Dazed and Confused.

Ethan Embry, another familiar face from 90s film.
Ethan Embry, another familiar face from 90s film. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Based on screenwriter Carol Heikkinen’s real-life experiences of working at global music franchise Tower Records (which filed for bankruptcy in 2006, nearly a decade after the film’s release), Empire Records serves as a rare and beautiful time capsule.

It’s a homage to an era in which every important moment in your teenage life was worthy of a thoughtfully selected soundtrack; where starting a band could make you a new person; when shaving your head and asking your team to stage your live funeral was an act of devoted friendship; when committing larceny was fine if you were saving what you loved; and music was listened to in a soundproof booth with headphones on, rather than streamed as a service.

This isn’t to say the film doesn’t have its flaws. When the cast interacts outside of the store, there’s often a lack of chemistry. And somehow, in hindsight, it seems problematic that the entire trajectory of their lives depends on whether the store remains open for business.

Team Empire Records: Coyote Shivers, Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth, Dianna Miranda
At Empire Records, time stopped and customers were willing to wait out major life crises or call back again after team bonding activities wrapped up. Photograph: United Archives GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

But what saves this film is its unselfconsciously optimistic, goofy, principled spirit. Empire Records was about seeing the silver lining even in the most terrible, scrape-the-bottom-of-the-barrel times, forming unlikely friendships and finding family at work, challenging the financial security and mediocrity of signing on the dotted line and “selling out”, and riding out the highs and lows of an industry in its doom-and-gloom phase.

Empire Records was a place where even the odd shoplifter who wandered in wanted to work: sure, it wasn’t a fast-track to becoming a tech billionaire, and a night in Vegas would probably lead to you being handcuffed on the couch. But you had a boss who kicked out predatory pop stars to protect his employees, and colleagues who fostered an environment in which mental health was discussed openly and non-judgmentally (for the most part).

With the rallying cry of “Damn the man, save the Empire!”, a generation of new fans crops up every few years or so, reminding us that it’s better to follow through on our dreams than give it all up for someone else’s.

• Empire Records is available to stream on YouTube Movies or Google Play


Nathania Gilson

The GuardianTramp

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