September 16, 2014
The innocence and experience of Empire Records
The past few years have brought a series of movie and TV series anniversaries that…while I still can’t say I feel old, really put the relentlessness of time into perspective. The X-Files turning 21. The Princess Bride turning 25.
Empire Records turns 20 next year, making it older than I was when I first saw it. A generation of kids who weren’t even born when it came out are old enough to see it now.
This article (which is long, but worth reading all the way through) came up in my news feed recently about the story of its making and total commercial flop in 1995.
I first saw Empire Records when I was 15. I was at summer camp, one of the multiple summer academic programs where I spent my summers as a teenager. And literally all of my friends from the previous year had gotten too cool for me and stopped talking to me. It was the final night of camp, and the movie that had been voted on for everyone to stay up late and watch, was Empire Records.
I asked for it for, I think, my Valentine’s Day present the following year, and my mother bought it on VHS for me. I would name it without hesitation as one of my favorite movies for years, without ever being able to articulate why.
The article is an incredible nostalgia trip, and suffice it to say, the story of the making of the movie sounds almost as much fun as the movie. It’s comforting somehow to know that the cast of the movie were all truly friends, who loved making it as much as we’ve all loved it as we’ve grown up. Things surprised me (Coyote Shivers was Liv Tyler’s stepfather?! And A.J.’s checkered shirt was an “old-man” shirt? I thought it was the sexiest thing I had ever seen, though maybe that was just A.J. in it), and things didn’t (mischief and mayhem on the part of Ethan Embry), but a passage that really gave me pause finally gave me the scaffolding to explain how this became such an important movie to me:
Part of the feel of the film was also lost via Regency’s insistence that it remain PG-13, rather than have the R-rating of the original script; that’s why none of the characters could be shown actually smoking cigarettes or marijuana, why they couldn’t swear like actual teenagers, why Eddie couldn’t run his weed operation on the roof—why they couldn’t, in other words, fully behave like the teens they were meant to portray.
See, I actually have to epically disagree with Petersen and the filmmakers about this. I think it’s an immense strength of the movie that those sorts of depictions were dispensed with.
Because much as I love the movie, it’s not actually because I can particularly identify with any one character in it, as opposed to characteristics and combinations of traits and struggles of multiple characters (Corey’s academic prowess, with a hint of Warren’s resentment and insecurity and A.J.’s artistic ambitions)…and that even if I wasn’t there, the world they inhabited was a world I could inhabit. (In some ways, unlike the world I actually did inhabit.)
And a huge part of that was the lack of completely rampant drug use and callous language. It’s not even that drug use or abuse wasn’t depicted in the world; it was—in Marc’s spending the day stoned on Eddie’s “special” brownies, and Corey’s admission of amphetamine abuse to keep up with schoolwork. It’s not, by a long stretch of the imagination, an anti-drug movie, but the world in which Empire Records exists isn’t one that revolves around getting fucked up. In some kind of wake of cynicism left behind by Generation X, there was this oppressive sense that real kids with real issues were all doing this stuff—and the movie as it turned out, apparently inadvertently, tacitly rejects that premise.
Because believe it or not, kids of my generation not doing drugs or acting out in those ways actually existed. Teenage culture without pervasive drug use actually existed, and the outlook that “oh this is what teenagers really do, though,” was a hugely alienating aspect of other movies about misfit teenagers for me (like Dazed and Confused, of which I remember not one single important thing).
I would hazard a guess that this aspect has actually contributed hugely to the movie’s long-term success, especially among, as the article notes, an audience slightly younger and more sheltered than that originally intended by the producers. The writing of Empire Records treats the problems and internal life of all of its characters with equal sincerity and seriousness, and that’s something that I really felt the lack of in a lot of media aimed more successfully at Generation X (even in things I did like and identify with in some regards, like Daria). It’s an unabashedly sincere and hopeful movie.
A movie like that, with a PG-13 rating, could be shown for movie night at summer camp, where a desperately lonely 15-year-old could fall in love with a story of hope that belonging somewhere exists. An R-rated movie with all the characters drinking/smoking/cursing for two solid hours, couldn’t.
It’s not an everyday occurrence that I aim heartfelt thanks to the MPAA for its contributions to a brilliant narrative decision, but today I do.
Because the themes of love and ambition, and enforced conformity vs. what it means to find a place where you really fit in the world, are pretty universal to teenagers, but contrary to a lot of mythmaking, pervasive drinking, smoking, and drug abuse actually weren’t. That wasn’t what teenagers all just did.
If Empire Records failed to coherently indict “The Man,” it did effectively undermine something snide and dismissive that had arisen in factions of teen culture, that very much conveyed that you had to be edgy or cynical or damaged enough for your problems or issues or dreams to matter.
Empire Records is exactly the movie it should have been.