April 8 used to be wholly devoted to Generation X’s annual mourning of Kurt Cobain, whose body was found on that day in 1994. Now it is better known in some circles as Rex Manning Day. Theoretically a celebration of the teen movie Empire Records — which was set on April 8 out of a ridiculous but apparently sincere desire to honor Cobain’s memory — it is in practice, like all internet-based holidays, an excuse for adults with similar interests to indulge in the narcissism of small differences. Peruse Facebook on Rex Manning Day, and you’ll see more debate over Empire Records than there was upon its release, in 1995, when the film was mostly ignored.
I would love to pretend that I’m above all that, but earlier this month I disappointed myself by jumping into more than one thread to defend what I know to be a pretty silly movie. Allow me to explain: At 33 years old, I am part of the microgeneration of then-tweens who found Empire Records via home video in the late ‘90s and never let go. We are the reason why there’s a Broadway adaptation in the works (sorry), a limited-edition gold double LP of the soundtrack (which is good, but come on) and a pop-punk band called Rexmanningday (they’re great). And we’ll protect this dumb, sweet fantasy about hot young people who work in a record store the size of a Walmart as if it were our childhood teddy bear—because that’s essentially what it is.
Works of fiction intended for teenagers and the not-yet-teens who can’t wait to be are strange amalgams of elements kids crave and lessons adults feel compelled to impart. The Chronicles of Narnia are Christian polemic punched up with talking animals and Turkish Delight. The Hunger Games takes place in a violent, classist reality-TV dystopia, with all the political subtext and pulpy appeal that setup enables, plus a love triangle. I’m sure Stephenie Meyer believes there’s a moral hidden within the Mormon vampire horniness of The Twilight Saga.
You don’t have to be a developmental psychologist to understand how a potent combination of visceral thrills and ideology, administered amid the hormonal chaos of adolescence, can have a lasting emotional impact. Whether they’re as brilliant as A Wrinkle in Time or as idiotic as the Saved by the Bell reruns I watched on an infinite loop in middle school, these stories burrow into our malleable, pubescent lizard brains and teach us how to live. From there, they become transitional objects for kids too old to drag around a tattered security blanket. Long after I graduated to grown-up literature, I would spend anxious nights re-reading Sweet Valley High books.
Despite being set in an extremely ‘90s version of the real world, Empire Records follows basically the same arc as a typical YA quest narrative. Faced with the news that their shop is about to be sold to a national chain, on the same day that has-been pop star Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield) is scheduled to make an in-store appearance, the staff schemes to “damn The Man” and “save the Empire.” Side plots about crushes, starfucking, depression, drugs, and petty theft unfold alongside the alterna-teens’ DIY efforts to raise enough money for their beloved manager, Joe (Anthony LaPaglia), to buy the store. Of course, they succeed. Like 90210, Gossip Girl and every boy band since the Beatles, the film offers many different, if all white, varieties of attractive faces and subcultures to appeal to a wide range of inchoate libidos. Any viewer under the age of 16 is left with a hatred of big corporations and lingering fantasies about Liv Tyler, Johnny Whitworth, Renée Zellweger, Ethan Embry or all of the above and more.
But Empire Records isn’t just a quintessential teen movie—it’s a quintessential teen cult movie. Although definitions vary, it’s fair to designate a film “cult” if it resonates with a smallish, obsessive fandom in ways that it doesn’t with the culture at large. Often, that means the presence of immersive elements like trippy visuals, musical numbers and cultural references that appeal to a particular, self-selected audience. For Empire Records in particular, it means a script full of funny and quotable one-liners, memorable sequences scored with angsty alt-rock and constant shout-outs to bands that could serve as kids’ first portals into new subcultures. (How many people in their 30s got their first glimpse of GWAR when Embry’s Mark devoured a pot brownie while watching one of their videos, then imagined that he’d been sucked into the screen?)
In place of coherent storylines, the movie serves up a series of loosely connected set pieces. Rex Manning’s campy “Say No More” music video, the mock funeral Empire employees throw for their suicidal coworker, Deb (Robin Tunney), and the climactic scene where insecure Gina (Zellweger) works up the courage to sing in public are excuses for viewers to lose themselves in the atmosphere of the record store more than points that push the plot forward. Taken together with ample crush fodder and a lightly didactic message, this stuff can make over-identifying with the characters on the screen irresistible for younger kids still trying to figure out who they are.
Most teen cult movies follow roughly the same template, which originated in the hundreds of thousands of Elvis rock musicals manufactured in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, then perfected in baby boomer touchstones like The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophenia, as well as the Beatles films. Music has been essential to this canon ever since. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, from 1979, enlisted the Ramones in a very fun, very stupid skeleton of a comedy built around their songs. American Graffiti and Grease capitalized on ‘70s kids’ nostalgia for hits of the ‘50s, while Dazed and Confused played to the 20-year nostalgia cycle by reviving Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper a generation after their prime. Record stores and the beautiful freaks who work in them are ubiquitous in these movies, from ‘80s classics like Pretty in Pink, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Hairspray to 2001’s Ghost World and 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Pump Up the Volume cast Christian Slater as a teenage pirate radio DJ in a variation on the theme.
Music can be a shortcut to immersiveness, a good excuse to introduce surreal elements and, as Broadway knows well, an entertaining substitute for plot. But even teen cult films where music plays a less prominent role are about pretty actors, pithy lines, stylized sets and standalone scenes more than they’re about telling a story. Heathers is croquet, candy colors, and “What’s your damage?” “Secret society!” and that kiss are more central to the appeal of Cruel Intentions than its highbrow source material, Les Liaisons dangereuses. I couldn’t give you a plot summary of Better Off Dead with a gun to my head, but I can recite the “Fronch” dinner scene.
Some of these movies are wonderful enough to earn a following beyond the people who were 11 or 14 when they came out. Others are legitimately terrible. I’d place Empire Records squarely in the center—it’s no Ghost World, sure, but have you seen High School Musical? The thing is, the alchemy of the teen cult movie has precisely nothing to do with quality. When we’re that age, all a film or a book or a TV show has to do to earn a permanent place of honor in our personal canons is tantalize our senses and teach us something, anything, about how people live. While growing up should make us more critical of the things we loved as kids, the cult movies we’re drawn to as teens are so crucial in shaping our attitudes toward art that they can short-circuit those critical faculties for decades afterward.
Sure, nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and one we’re all in danger of overdosing on in this age of Full House revivals and retro-’80s presidents. If you haven’t seen a movie you like better than Empire Records by the time you reach your mid-30s, you should probably shell out for MoviePass and also consider therapy. But what’s more concerning than adults who are stuck in the past is adults who can’t see the difference between kids’ movies that live on as relics of a particular moment in time and classics that should speak to them regardless of context. It seems likely that people are still picking fights about Empire Records not because they realize it’s ridiculous to cling to childish films after all these years, but because they feel strongly about different childish films. They are Pump Up the Volume guys who yearn to be Slater’s Happy Harry Hard-on, not Whitworth’s Jordan Catalano-lite A.J., and Pretty in Pink naysayers whose lifelong teen dream is to date Riff Randell (P.J. Soles) from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
It’s as pointless to tell someone their particular teen film allegiance is wrong as it is to call their threadbare stuffed animal ugly, but there’s no mystery as to why we’ve ended up in this ouroboros of immaturity. We are a culture of grown-ups who read YA novels, watch teen TV shows and stan for superhero franchises. After years of clutching our own childhood talismans and adopting stories written for teenagers as our own, we’ve lost all sense of what in pop culture is and is not meant for us. We are starting to insist that even other generations’ highly specific kiddie cult faves appeal to our supposedly refined tastes. To paraphrase the one and only Rex Manning, why don’t we all just fade away?