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Minimum Wage, Maximum Nostalgia: Stepping Back into Empire Records

By  · Published on January 27th, 2017

It’s Rex Manning Day Again!

There is an irony to the delayed secondhand fandom of Allan Moyle’s Empire Records. Like a cardboard standee of Rex Manning, the film is propped up by the pillars of its own era; steeped so deeply into the trappings of the 90s that it may in fact be the only motion picture to win tickets to Lollapalooza on the radio. And yet, it made a paltry $270K upon its release in 1995.

However, like combat boots and collecting enough vinyl records to start a rock station in your living room, Empire Records is a facet of the 1990s that has definitely made a comeback. The multiple DVD releases have demonstrated that the soundtrack-driven dramedy has an epic cult following. What is its appeal exactly? It’s not just the Gin Blossoms underscoring the scenes, it’s not merely the preponderance of flannel, and it’s not simply the game of Before-They-Were-Stars Guess Who that viewers can play as they watch. Empire Records’ nostalgia has a b-side, and it’s less rose-colored-glasses nostalgia as it is rose-colored-wallet nostalgia.

On this week’s episode of the Junkfood Cinema podcast, hosts Brian and Cargill were each launched down memory lane not by the fashions, music, nor lingo of the 90s, but by their shared experiences of working in video stores; taking ball-peen hammers to VHS tapes, goofing off endlessly, and dealing with our own version of Music Town corporate buffoonery. These experiences are not solely relegated to those who ever jockeyed a video counter. There is a universality in the simultaneously wistful and playfully self-deprecating exercise of remembering the onset of our working years.

And that is the memory bank from which Empire Records makes the bulk of its withdrawals. Empire Records is an occupational farce. It’s a drama in the loosest sense, with serious conflict thin on the ground. The most dire thing that happens is that a big corporate chain store is going to buy and rebrand their beloved indie record store. They aren’t even going to lose their jobs, but MIGHT have to take their work a tad more seriously. Oh dear god, no!

That doesn’t however strip the story of significance, quite the opposite. The working class absurdity of dealing with customers and on-the-clock shenanigans is the comedic backbone, and the emotional beats are largely the exploration of relationships made and strained between coworkers. With all compliments intended, Empire Records is therefore reminiscent of early Kevin Smith; specifically Clerks.

If you’ve ever spent hours behind a counter, waiting tables, and/or answering phones in the lobby of an office building, in the 90s or otherwise, give Empire Records a spin. We think you’ll find the nostalgia runs deeper than the track list. And for more waxing nostalgic on Empire Records, listen to this week’s Junkfood Cinema.

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.