Why 'Empire Records' Is the Most Underrated Teen Movie of the ’90s

“Open 'til Midnight”—and rocking our hearts forever.

Clueless is standalone iconic. American Pie spearheaded an entire genre of late-’90s teen sex comedies. Somewhere between the two, Empire Records presented a warm, witty, music-driven take on teen life in the Lollapalooza decade. It’s always had a cult following, and now it’s time to give the movie its mainstream due. Here’s why Empire Records is the most underrated teen movie of its decade.

It’s a Genuine Cult Classic

Empire Records didn’t even get a legitimate theatrical release. Audiences mostly first learned of the movie by way of the tie-in music video for the Gin Blossoms’ hit “Till I Hear It From You." From there, viewers tracked down Empire Records on home video, found it impossible to switch away from during its prolific cable TV run, and passionately, by word-of-mouth, turned what was almost a lost cause into an enduring favorite.

Empire Records Does the Alt-Rock Decade Right

From its look to its sound to its feel to, really, just about every detail, Empire Records provides a snazzy snap-shot of the very last moment when rock-and-roll ruled pop music (and culture), and when kids defined themselves by the favorite rock artists. Lollapalooza, grunge, goth, rave—all were umbrellas and the individual performers of each functioned of signature badges of identity and social signaling.

The Movie Also Gets Record Store Jobs Right

The grind. The excitement. The drudgery. The camaraderie. The shared obsessions. The bonding over mutual loves and debating over disputed favorites. The headaches. The outbursts of pure rocking joy. They’re all in the film—and spectacularly heartfelt and recognizable.

The Cast

Numerous big-time up-and-comers shine, and they’re so young here you won’t believe it’s them: Liv Tyler, Renee Zellwegger, Rory Cochrane, Ethan Embry, Robin Tunney, Johnny Whitworth, and even Anthony LaPaglia, who's noticeably older than everybody else, but still, like the rest of us, twenty-plus years younger than today.

The Soundtrack

What a killer round-up of now almost entirely forgotten artists who all managed to score radio and MTV hits during rock’s great post-grunge blaze of glory. Beyond the aforementioned Gin Blossoms, the roster includes the Cranberries, Better Than Ezra, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Cracker, Evan Dando, the Innocence Mission, Edwyn Collins, Dishwalla, Throwing Muses, Daniel Johnston, and the Meices, a band that once enormously impressed Beavis and Butt-head by casting Ron Jeremy in their "Daddy's Gone to California" music video.

Rex Manning

Maxwell Caulfield as teen heartthrob Rex Manning is the best send-up of screaming mimi pop idol phenomena since Conrad Birdie in Bye-Bye Birdie and/or Greg Brady as “Johnny Bravo.”

GWAR Rules

Yes, multimedia heavy metal monster marauders GWAR appear in Empire Records. Prominently. Maniacally. Twice.

For All the ’90s Edginess, It’s Still Quaint—Especially About Public Shootings by Angry Teens

No sequence reflects more strikingly how times have changed than the one in which previously tossed-out pipsqueak shoplifter Warren returns to Empire Records with a loaded gun. Comically punctuating his angry rants while randomly popping off his pistol amidst cowering staff and costumers, Warren reveals that all he ever wanted was to be cool enough to work at the shop. The scene ends quite happily for all involved and not, tellingly, with a bang.

Anthony LaPaglia as Joe Is the Coolest Cool Boss Ever

As Empire Records' adult manager, Joe seeks only to understand why Lucas (Rory Cochrane) lost the previous evening’s $9,000 cash bounty; he repeatedly turns potentially tragic dust-ups into dreams come true; and he wails on the drums when everybody blows off steam by headbanging to some AC/DC. All that may seem a little too-groovy-to-be-true, but Anthony LaPaglia’s performance perfectly conveys the helpful, with-it, understanding, and inspiring grown-ups one encounters just a few lucky times during the course of adolescence.

Empire Records Is a Perfect Follow-Up to Director Allan Moyle’s Times Square and Pump Up the Volume

Prior to Empire Records, filmmaker Allan Moyle created two of the most electric, zeitgeist-capturing teen films of all time.

Times Square (1980) captured the hardcore grit of New York’s turn-of-the-decade punk/new-wave moment and, via the movie’s Sleaze Sisters rock band their “Garbage Girls” devotees, shockingly forecasts what would become the Riot Grrl movement.

Pump Up the Volume taps into ascending alternative rock as a vehicle for a new mainstream youth dynamic a year before Nirvana’s Nevermind made it musically official. Empire Records serves, then, as a final piece of that unique, invaluable trilogy. Long may it rock.