EmpireRecordscoverGrade: B
Entire family: No
1995, 90 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for sexual situations, language and drug use
Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 widescreen
Featured audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Bonus features: D
Trailer/Amazon link

Sometimes you’d swear that critics and audiences seem to be watching two different movies. Empire Records was liked by only 24 percent of the Rotten Tomatoes critics, whereas 84 percent of the audience liked it. But I can see where a person’s reaction could go either way.

Empire Records (1995) is deliberately quirky, with a cast of teens whose quirkiness and iCarly-style random dancing will make you either smile . . . or roll your eyes. It’s the kind of movie you’d get if you crossed a mainstream teen dramedy like The Breakfast Club with an indie film that, like so many indie flicks, seems to operate by the philosophy that the weirder the better. And if you’re familiar with the classic chick-flick Mystic Pizza (1988), which featured Conchata Ferrell as the lone adult presiding over a small business overrun by teens and their problems, you’ll see plenty of similarities, starting with the basic premise and structure.

Mystic Pizza featured a young Julia Roberts, and the attraction here is a young Liv Tyler and Renée Zellweger.

Like Mystic Pizza, Empire Records is a coming-of-age story in which a wholesome character (Tyler) is looking to lose her virginity, a young man (Johnny Whitworth) wants to overcome his shyness and tell a girl he loves her, one girl wrestles with the “promiscuous” label (Zellweger), and another (Robin Tunney) is feeling so down on herself and life that she’s tried to cut herself as a cry for help. And a running contrast between promiscuity and wholesome behavior blurs at some point.

EmpireRecordsscreenThe business itself is facing a make-or-break moment, though it almost seems incidental compared to the personal problems of the employees that take center stage—or rather, center aisle. Empire Records is an independent store that feeds off the energy of its young and crazy employees, who like to play loud music and rock out in the store with customers of all ages. At times, you’d think you were in an Elvis movie, the whole place is so up and random dancing. Even the benevolent boss, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) gets into the act by locking himself in his office and playing a drum set he keeps there for stress relief. He’s a father-figure to this group, the “cool dad” before cool dads became a thing. He doesn’t even get overly mad when a young employee (Rory Cochrane) entrusted to close and deposit the day’s receipts has an Uncle Billy moment, and he’s just as tolerant with a space cadet employee who wants to be in a band (Ethan Embry), a young shoplifter (Brendan Sexton III) whose attitude is 50 shades of obnoxious, or a boyfriend (Coyote Shivers) that hangs around too much.  

If you got a kick out of Hugh Grant’s has-been rocker in Music & Lyrics you’ll get a kick out of ‘80s pop idol Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), who is scheduled to do an album promotion at the store and a record signing for his increasingly aging fan base. Adding to the day’s mayhem is the store’s owner, Mitchell (Ben Bode), who is determined to sell out to the Music Town record-store empire.

Like the characters in The Breakfast Club, this group talks to each other and gets to know each other better during the course of the film, but music is the real focus, and a nearly non-stop mostly indie-alternative soundtrack includes engaging tunes by The Gin Blossoms, The Dirt Clods, The Cruel Sea, Ape Hangers, The Buggles, Noah Stone, Cracker, The Meices, Quicksand, Ass Ponies, Sacrilicious, Real, AC/DC, Dishwalla, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dire Straits, Evan Dando, Drill, Throwing Muses, Full Tilt Gonzo, The Cranberries, Edwyn Collins, Pegboy, Fig Dish, The Innocence Mission, Daniel Johnston, Fitz of Depression, Gwar, Please, Loose Diamonds, Sponge, Billy White Trio, Coyote Shivers, Adolescents, Queen Sarah Saturday, Dead Hot Workshop, Lustre, The The, The Martinis, Maxwell Caulfield, Poster Children, Suicidal Tendencies, Sybil Vane, Mouth Music, and The Flying Lizards. You may not have heard of many of these, but you’ll want to check out their music after watching Empire Records.

My 17-year-old son thought it was funny and energetic and voted it a B, while my wife and 13-year-old daughter were less enthusiastic (B-). I’m with my son on this one. It’s just crazy enough to make you smile. But I do think it would take a mature 13 year old to watch this, given the sexual situations. I’d say high school and older.

Sex: Nothing graphic depicted, but Tyler strips down to her underwear and in another scene a girl pulls down a man’s pants; a couple has sex offscreen
Violence: Two fights that are mostly comic; suicidal teen shows her cut wrists
Adult Situations: Two attempted seduction scenes, special brownies, pill popping (for which the character is chided), drinking and smoking
Takeaway: A killer soundtrack can make a movie better