By Mahnaz Dar | September 21, 2021
Almost every piece of media hit differently once COVID started. Watching a crowd of maskless people rock out to “Twist and Shout in” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made my stomach do an involuntary dip. Meanwhile, characters who extolled the virtues of handwashing, like The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts and the title character of Monk, seemed unnervingly prescient. Later, over a year since the pandemic began, one movie moment felt especially resonant: the party scene that concludes Empire Records (1995).
Just as Saturday Night Fever (1977) utterly embodied the ’70s, Empire Records was pure ’90s, from the fashion (tiny plaid skirts, huge baggy jeans) to its grungy, anti-corporate ethos (“Damn the man!” as protagonist Lucas puts it). The film chronicles a day in the lives of the teenage employees of an indie record store. After Lucas (Rory Cochrane) learns that the store will be sold by its owner, Mitch (Ben Bode), to the corporate chain Music Town, he plans to raise the money to buy Empire Records by gambling the day’s earnings on a wager at Atlantic City. When Lucas loses it all, manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) has to figure out how to cover for him—and keep his job. Meanwhile, the other workers deal with their own crises, including, but not limited to, a teen shoplifter-turned-shooter, and a visit from washed-up 80s pop singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield).
Yet by the film’s close, all the characters are dancing on a rooftop to the strains of the Gin Blossoms, their woes seemingly forgotten. Throwing a party and taking donations from hundreds of attendees allowed Joe to raise the capital to buy the store from the odious Mitch. Now, they celebrate. Gina (Renée Zellweger), who earlier confessed a secret desire to become a singer, belts out “Sugar High” (the first stop on a musical trajectory for Zellweger that would include Chicago and Judy). And while Corey (Liv Tyler) shot down A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) a few hours ago when he first declared his love, she now returns his feelings.
Though I’ve been a fan of the movie for years, the conclusion always seemed hastily tacked on. And I’m not alone; critic Roger Ebert called the ending a “mess,” adding, “Why did I hear eerie echoes of ‘Hey, gang! Let’s fix up the old barn and put on a show!’”
To me, it didn’t seem plausible that the characters were so willing to cut loose after everything that went down. True, the store is safe, but throughout their day in the life, the characters have made some disturbing revelations: We learn that perfectionist Corey’s path to Harvard was fueled by an amphetamine addiction; that troubled Debra tried to kill herself the night before; and that the reason Lucas is so driven to save the store is that Joe and Empire Records are all he has, as his own mother had abandoned him years ago. Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?
A year into the pandemic, I revised that opinion. As restaurants and shops shuttered, offices switched to a work from home model, and friends took to Zoom to see one another, I started to fantasize about the day when the pandemic was finally behind us. The restaurant meals would make Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry outing look spartan, the outings with friends would be endless, and the shopping sprees would be decadent. But until that day, there didn’t seem anything worth celebrating; I envisioned myself in a holding pen until the world returned to normal.
That day, of course, never came, and it slowly dawned on me that it never would. And when I once again rewatched Empire Records, I saw the characters not as misguided or naïve, but as brave. Their problems aren’t going to be surmounted in a day; they’re issues that may span lifetimes. But their ability to carve out space for joy, despite knowing that tomorrow may bring just as much sorrow, is stirring.
Ebert wasn’t the only critic to trash Empire Records when it was released, and it’s easy to pick apart issues with plot or pacing. But for me the movie, and especially that finale, reverberates more than any other teen party scene, mainly due to its pitch-perfect depiction of raw adolescent emotion. Like a moody teen, the film whipsaws from rage to melancholy to elation — a scene where a frenzied Corey, reeling from a screaming match with Gina, hurls merchandise in a rage, cuts abruptly to a rare moment of bonding between a calmer Corey and a surprisingly nurturing Debra. The finale is just as intoxicating, as the camera seems to be torn about whom to follow: Gina flailing in delight as she makes her singing debut, or Corey trying to catch A.J.’s attention, or Joe and Lucas buying back to the store to the delighted crowd of hippies, stoners, and punks watching it all take place.
The film had a strong effect on me—though not in a literal sense. I didn’t seek out the thriving 2020 underground party scene; I was not about that “Masque of the Red Death” life. Instead, the movie spurred me to seek out moments of happiness whenever I could, whether that meant taking a long walk or splurging on cupcakes just because. The point was that I wasn’t putting off enjoying myself until a far-off date in the future that might never come.
Pop culture often depicts partying as the path of least resistance for the proudly lazy and aimless; think the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” or Bluto in Animal House. But in Empire Records, a teenage party becomes a beautifully, desperately courageous act. More than that, it’s a call to action to finally seize the day.