Empire Records

Soundtracking: Empire Records

Happy Rex Manning Day!

It was 24 years ago today that Lucas, A.J, Cory and the gang banded together to save Empire Records.

For those unfamiliar, “The Empire” was one of the last great vestiges of independent music ownership and the scene of one of the great cult classics of the 1990s. The unfamiliar can be excused, however, since the film was, by and large, a failure. It grossed just over $300,000 in the States and was gone from theatres just two weeks after its late 1995 release. So, why the fuss?

It gained popularity with a certain age group – pretty much anyone currently in their 30s – thanks to early performances from some would-be stars (Liv Tyler and Renee Zellweger most notably) and its all-timer of a soundtrack.

But why celebrate the cult classic in April instead of on its Sept. 22 release date? It’s simple.

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Today is Rex Manning Day. Or, rather, the 24th anniversary of the single day on which the entirety of Empire Records plays out: April 8, 1995.

Rex Manning – a fading icon of a bygone era desperately clinging to relevance – becomes the defining, dividing figure between what the kids and Bohemian manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) are raging against in the corporate overlords that threaten their store when the whole crew is forced to rally for a largely geriatric in-store.

Empire Records finds its strength in bridging gaps, though, which is why Manning is such a creative lightning rod for the day.

The soundtrack was a notable release thanks to the inclusion of a top-five hit from the Gin Blossoms (“Til I Hear it From You”) as well as a host of rarities from mid-90s buzz bands including The Cranberries, Cracker and Better Than Ezra. However, these songs have such little bearing on how the film plays out that the idea of bridging musical gaps comes out in the countless songs that would not feature on the film’s official soundtrack.

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The film’s most memorable scenes, though, are scored by lesser hits from the 1970s and 1980s. The gang decides to rile Joe up with The Flying Lizards’ 1979 cover of “Money, That’s What I Want,” while the manager retaliates later on by letting off steam to AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got it)”, released the same year.

The employees’ moments of downtime, too, provide the best musical moments with montages scored by Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” and The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” probably introducing much of the generation to one or both tracks.

That Buggles track is the best example of the divides that Empire Records has come to represent in its 20 years of existence. The 1979 release was the first video ever played when MTV launched in 1981. The music video channel was instrumental in forming the consumption habits of most kids that came of age between the mid-1980s and the turn of the 21st Century and it is coincidentally that generation that has clung to Empire Records all these years.

However, it is that same generation that helped kill the prominence of huge retailers like The Empire. It is that same generation that became the earliest adapters of file transferring, digital downloads and e-commerce: three pillars that have spelled the decline of the likes of Sam the Record Man, HMV and Tower Records both in Canada and abroad. So, the song represents a generational touchstone, in addition to the obvious technical parallels of one medium killing another.

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From Eddie’s “glue of the world tape” – which brings Mark the history of music: classical to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, to a cleverly-included Big Star cover by The Lemonheads’ Evan Dando, the film does its best to look back on the music that influenced the pre-MTV generations while similarly turning an eye towards the looming new century.

The secondary single off the soundtrack is an incredible throwback in and of itself. Edwyn Collins was a former Scottish punk from the ‘70s that had broken into the solo game in the ‘80s. “A Girl Like You,” enjoyed top-10 success on both sides of the pond thanks to its ability to sound simultaneously like a British Invasion throwback and a track that could be embraced by both BritPop and the earliest seeds of electronica.

Without knowing it, Empire Records was perfectly timed. It was a movie born out of the late ‘70s, aimed at the mid-‘90s that provides the perfect allegory for how music and the music industry would decline in the 2000s.

So, at least for one day only… maybe just this once… Damn the Man. Save the Empire.

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