28 Reasons Empire Records Is the Ultimate ‘90s Movie

If the honorable Judge Lance Ito were to impanel a jury of '90s experts (Pauley Shore, Pam Anderson, Blind Melon’s bee girl) and task it with picking the decade’s quintessential film, foreman Urkel would return in mere minutes with a verdict: Empire Records. Part slacker flick, part teen comedy, part Mighty Ducks-style underdog story, Empire Records follows a group of lowly record-store clerks over the course of a single day. And not just any day — Rex Manning Day, a day that will change their lives…forever!

On this day, the 20th anniversary of the film’s initial theatrical release, we thought it was time to look back and examine what makes Empire Records the most '90s of all '90s films. From the fashion to the music to the political subtext just begging to be dredged out of the dialogue, the 1995 classic captures what it was like to be a suburban kid lost in those weird years between genie pants and “Genie In a Bottle.”
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Liv Tyler's in it. The '90s were a big decade for the daughter of Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler. After Alicia Silverstone — the Thelma to her Louise in the memorable video for her daddy’s band’s 1993 hit “Crazy” — Liv was the prototypical post-grunge pinup. In Empire Records, she steals scenes with the same sweetness and sex appeal she later brought to That Thing You Do! and Armageddon — the second and third installments of an unofficial trilogy that’s way better than those Lord of the Rings flicks she’d appear in the following decade. (Down, geek. We kid!)
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It’s set in a store where they primarily sell CDs. CDs! The staff occasionally moves some LPs and 7-inches, and that one guy Eddie (James "Kimo" Wills) is particularly evangelical about the virtues of vinyl, but mostly, Empire Records deals with those shiny little discs that now litter landfills and thrift shops across the country.
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Music chains were still a thing. The plot centers on the efforts of loveably bumbling bossman Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) to stop Empire Records from being subsumed by Music Town, one of those soulless retailers that, believe it or not, once made money from the sale of recorded music. As loathsome store owner Mitchell Beck (Ben Bodé) explains, the Empire Records building used to house Beck's Bath and Bidet, the “bathroom fixtures emporium” it probably reverted to circa 1999, when Napster send the record industry spiraling down the crapper.
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Liv Tyler’s pleated skirt and combat boots. This was standard-issue rocker-chick fashion, a day-to-night look anyone with $100 to burn on Dr. Martens could pull off.
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Photo: Regency Entertainment.
A.J.’s totally sweet Joey Lawrence haircut. In the '90s, you didn’t even have to ask the stylists down at Supercuts for “The Joey.” If you had a ratty cardigan and brown locks of a certain length, they somehow just knew to give you this male equivalent of “The Rachel.” Woah!
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Lucas’ lack of fiscal restraint. In the '90s, Doritos had a slogan that pretty much summed up the decade’s attitude toward money: “Crunch all you want; we’ll make more.” When Lucas (Rory Cochrane) heads to Atlantic City with the day’s receipts, he’s not thinking about the actual value of $9,140. It might as well be Monopoly money. And, when he lets it ride on the craps table, he’s no different from those dot-commers who’d gain and lose massive fortunes a few years later.
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Photo: Regency Entertainment.
A singing Renée Zellweger! She had us even before the "hello" she utters in 1996's Jerry Maguire. Even though Zellweger rarely talks about her turn in Empire Records, her big follow-up to 1994's Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, it was memorable. As the outwardly confident, secretly shy Gina, Zellweger gets it on with has-been rocker Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield, bien sûr), and lives out her rock 'n' roll fantasies alongside Coyote Shivers during the big concert scene.
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The soundtrack. Featuring loads of brooding white dudes with electric guitars (Cracker, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Better Than Ezra, Evan Dando, and more!), the musical companion to Empire Records is more alt-rock than any human not named Matt Pinfield needs in a single sitting.
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It had Robin Tunney in it. She was like Lori Petty for the high school set.
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And, she plays a token angsty grunge chick. Three years after her breakout performance in the timeless Pauley Shore vehicle Encino Man, Tunney pouted, shaved her noggin, and dispensed massive amounts of sarcasm as the troubled Debra in Empire Records. With The Craft a year later, she further cemented her status as Alternative Nation it-girl.
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The gang’s morning psych-up song is a grungy power-pop jam by a band with a dumb three-word name. No, not Seven Mary Three, Crash Test Dummies, Goo Goo Dolls, or Third Eye Blind, but Queen Sarah Saturday. “Listening to this crap will make you sterile,” A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) tells Mark (Ethan Embry), to which he replies, “Maybe I want to be sterile.”
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Photo: Regency Entertainment.
Yep, Ethan Embry’s here, too. Before he wooed Jennifer Love Hewitt in Can’t Hardly Wait, Embry spazzed out as Mark, a record-shop clerk with questionable taste in music (favorite singer: Axl Rose) and a desire to start a band that will undoubtedly suck. When Robin Tunney makes him a button that reads, “Mark sucks,” even he doesn’t argue with the assessment.
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There’s a fair amount of flannel. Look for it in that scene where dudes mosh in the store, which is something that totally happened all the time in the '90s.
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When Eddie makes Mark a mixtape, it’s actually a cassette tape. “This music is the glue of the world,” says Eddie. “It holds it all together. Without this, life is meaningless.” Naturally, he is obsessed with Floyd and Zeppelin.
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“Damn the man!” qualifies as a legitimate rallying cry for a generation facing no wars, financial crises, or real problems of any kind. Those kids didn’t know how good they had it.
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Music Town’s totally fascist playlist rules. As Mark explains in the “fan edition” version of the film, the store’s incoming corporate overlords will institute listening restrictions liable to mean “No Pac, no Dre, no Cube, no Snoop, no Mr. Big.” Who wants to live in a world where you can’t spin “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang” and “To Be With You” whenever the mood strikes?
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There are no consequences for anyone’s actions. “Have I fired anyone today?” asks manager Joe at one point. Nope. At Empire Records, you can shoplift, brandish firearms, instigate dance parties, glue change to the floor, rob the register, have sex in the break room, bash away on drum sets, and stage rock concerts fueled by marijuana brownies and beer you’re not licensed to sell — all without fear of negative repercussions. What could be more '90s than that?
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Teenagers could still find part-time jobs. According to Forbes, teen employment has reached a 35-year low. The only thing worse than working a mindless, go-nowhere job alongside a bunch of idiots at a place like Empire Records? Not having a job at all.
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The rampant slackerism. “You think I’d still be working here if I had $9,000?” A.J. asks in one scene. “Yeah, I think you would,” says Berko (Coyote Shivers). “I think you would, too,” says Mark. That about sums it up for everyone in the film but Liv Tyler’s Harvard-bound Corey.
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Poptimism and/or hipster irony and/or contrarian criticism have yet to create a culture wherein artists like Rex Manning receive re-evaluations and are suddenly deemed cool. Here, he just sucks. At least he’ll only have to wait about a decade before the internet starts churning out nostalgia listicles that lionize cheeseball entertainment.
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Liv Tyler’s character is hooked on diet pills. Who is she, Jessie Spano?
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The Gwar video Mark hallucinates to is called “Saddam A Go-Go.” It’s all about a certain '90s villain who’d thankfully never, ever trouble us again.
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Pre-Columbine, you could still make light of a disgruntled teenage white boy with a gun. When Warren (Brendan Sexton III) enters the store wielding a piece and threatening to shoot the place up, the cops just kind of shrug. By the end of the movie, the underage troublemaker is drinking a beer and offering to ring up a patron — 'cause you know, he works there now.
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A rad Sponge tune scores the climactic party-prep scene. Plowed” is just the thing to ready the gang for a night of illegal merrymaking on the streets of a town where there are evidently no laws against hawking booze and throwing impromptu rock concerts on rooftops.
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The other best song — other than the Renée Zellweger version of “Sugar High” — is by the friggin’ Gin Blossoms. It’s called “Til I Hear It From You,” and it’s a reminder of why everyone should go back and listen to 1992’s New Miserable Experience. Seriously. (Skip forward to 1:05)
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The movie seemed really great at the time. Pretty people, teen angst, underground music: It was like a cooler, edgier Clueless!
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In retrospect, it kinda sucks. The same goes for many bits of '90s ephemera, from TGIF (try suffering through an episode of Full House) to Blink-182. And yet, you love it anyway. Get past the goofy plot, the iffy dialogue, and the eventual realization that none of these characters actually gave a crap about music — the “glue of the world” that supposedly holds us all together — and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable cinematic experience.
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Photo: Regency Entertainment/movpins.com.
Wait, Debi Mazar’s in this thing, too?! Her '90s filmography is a veritable laundry list of zeitgeist-capturing flicks. She began the decade with Goodfellas, Jungle Fever, Singles, and So I Married an Axe Murderer, and before closing things out with 1999’s The Insider, she played Rex Manning’s long-suffering publicist in Empire Records. When she admits she doesn’t really like old Rexy’s music, it’s a moment of clarity as powerful as any in this oh-so-gripping film.