It feels appropriate on today, of all days, I talk a little bit about my history with Empire Records.
The movie came out when I was ten – dating myself a bit there, I think to myself, even though I openly admit my age – but I only knew of it a year or so later, browsing my local video rental store. The place was small, certainly not one of the chains that existed back then, with a tiny area of video games (my usual go-to spot), a few rows of older movies, and walls lined with the newer stuff. By then, I was allowed to go on my own – it was about a block from my house – and I remember often spending an hour or so just slowly going up and down the rows.
For some reason, for the longest time, I had wanted to rent Reality Bites. Do not ask me why, dear reader, I must have been pulled in because it looked So Adult. Or maybe it was the cover, who knows?
But I was shut down when I asked if I could get it from my mom, who correctly assumed the things in the movie weren’t really age appropriate (also, the movie is terrible, thanks for saving me from being bored, mom). So here I was, still looking to take my first real leap into not-cartoons and Kid Stuff, and I came across Empire Records that day in the store. Every single person on that damn cover were people I wanted to be friends with or wanted to be, and I knew immediately this clearly was to be my new Reality Bites. I Wanted to see this thing.
Times were fairly different back then. The whole ‘too young for this movie’ thing wasn’t really enforced as much. I brought up the movie to the counter and the guy probably looked at me and looked at it and probably thought ‘Good enough. At least it’s not some gorefest’ (I fondly remember the B-Horror movie VHS covers, as an aside) and promptly handed over my rented copy.
As it turned out, the movie was probably way too much for someone like me. At eleven, the kind of things Empire Records dealt with were issues that were only just starting to form as things I’d eventually see around me and have to deal with myself. I’d venture a guess that most of the more somber, important scenes went right over my head, and it was probably for the best – maybe it’s not such a great idea to learn about self-harm, sexual harassment from an older dude (ugh, Rex Manning, amirite?), and drug abuse from a 90s teen comedy. Still, some of the overarching messages did leave a lasting impression.
I wanted that kind of life. Not the bad stuff, and there’s a whole lot of bad stuff in the flick, but to be part of a group of misfits. I was always the oddball of my group, so seeing a movie that was practically dedicated to oddballs was great. For all of what could be considered wrong with this flick, I still feel, to this day, it’s got one of the more believable character interactions, even though some of the characters were a little much. One of the biggest things that stuck with me is the idea that you don’t always pick the people you work with or interact with, but sometimes even the most wildly different personalities somehow mesh together. The idea that you might not get along all the time, but that doesn’t mean you can’t care when that person is hurting or doing something self-destructive. It’s weird, little lessons like that that I gained from this, along with what felt like the beginning of what my taste in music would be going forward for a long time.
Watching it years later, I always have to laugh at how much the critics panned this thing. It’s still pretty terribly rated on Rotten Tomatoes, though far better rated by regular old movie watchers. In a way, it feels appropriate, given the movie’s general anti-establishment (I mean, ‘damn the man’ was a rallying cry in this thing) message. I never did get this kind of life experience – honestly, music never was even a huge thing for me growing up, so no music store job for me – but I still look back on this thing fondly. If there were ever a movie to show what kind of teenagers existed in the 90s, this certainly would be a decent one to point to. I feel like it says a lot, too, that the movie is over twenty years old and references to it is trending on Twitter as I write this.
So Happy Rex Manning Day everyone, hope you kick that asshole out of your store.