It’s April 8, which means it’s Rex Manning day! What the heck is Rex Manning day? I’m glad you asked!
Empire Records was released in 1995, and it tanked. Critics hated it, and moviegoers went to see Se7en instead. Empire made just $303,841 at the box office. But, in the grand tradition of cult classics, the film found its audience on home video. Is it a great movie? Not particularly, but it really doesn’t matter. Empire boasts a killer soundtrack, an endlessly quotable script and a likeable, absurdly attractive cast, and it’s a movie that I love.
From November of 1992 to June of 1994, I worked for a retail record store chain. It felt like longer than that, because it was a pivotal time in my life. Post-college, I was feeling aimless. My original plan to go to law school had been set aside, I was still living at home and I was waiting tables at a restaurant. For some reason I never understood, my boss there didn’t like me, and my shifts had been cut to almost nothing. Just before Thanksgiving, I decided I needed a change. Remembering the Christmas break I spent working at the record store, and thinking they’d probably at least need temporary seasonal help, I put in an application. By the next day, I’d been hired and I told the restaurant to fuck all the way off.
Being an enormous, enthusiastic music fan, it turned out I had a knack for selling records, and my manager kept me on after the holiday season was over. One Tuesday evening (March 12, 1993, according to theconcertdatabase.com), my life changed forever; I just didn’t know it at the time. That night, I was working at the store when two young women came in. I greeted them and asked if I could help them find anything, but it turned out they were employees from another store; they were in town for a Henry Rollins show and had some extra time, so they just wanted to look around. We chatted for maybe 5 minutes, but I needed to get back to work – Tuesdays are new release days, and I only had one associate working with me that evening – so I went about assisting other customers. It was a fairly ordinary interaction, and I honestly didn’t give it another thought until a few months later. It turned out that the woman who came in that night, Lou, was going to be managing a “superstore” in a new location, and she needed an awesome assistant manager. She remembered our interaction and thought of me.
So, how did this ordinary Tuesday night end up changing my life forever? Lou and I only worked together for about six months before I was promoted to manager of my own store, and that was almost thirty years ago. But here’s the thing – Lou ended up becoming my best friend. Oh, and I married her brother.
By June of 1994, Lou and I had quit the record store and moved to the Detroit area together, where she got a job with a different retail chain, and I went to work for the rental car company where I would spend the next eleven years. But that six months we spent working together, with the shitty hours and the shitty pay and the shitty customers, was such a blast, because we had each other, and we had the music.
So when Empire Records came out, it was one of those times when I genuinely saw myself reflected in a piece of pop culture. It wasn’t necessarily that I saw myself in any particular character (again, these people are impossibly beautiful), but I appreciated the way the characters interacted with each other, and, most importantly, how much they loved the music.
Empire Records revolves around a group of young folks who work at an independent record store called (you can probably see this coming) Empire Records. It’s a “day in the life” type of story, with the run time taking place over the course of about 24 hours. Somehow every single character makes some huge life decision on the exact same day, completely coincidentally!! Before the day is out, people will have declared their love for one another, survived a suicide attempt, sung in front of other people for the very first time, and decided to move to another state for school to be near the person they just declared their love for. Oh, and the indie record store would miraculously be saved from a corporate buy-out.
The main event at the store this day, though, is the arrival of pop star Rex Manning for a record signing. Manning’s signature song is “Say No More (Mon Amour)”. Yes, it’s as terrible as you’d imagine. Seriously, you’ve been warned.
The date of Rex Manning’s visit, as you may have guessed by now, is April 8th. Once the film found a cult following on video (and by video, I mean VHS – the first DVD wouldn’t be released until the end of 1996), fans started celebrating the film on that date. Co-star Ethan Embry explained in a tweet why April 8 was chosen as the date:
By the way, Ethan Embry follows me on Twitter, and I can’t tell you how ridiculously happy that makes me.
Now, about that soundtrack; a collection of primarily 90s tunes by popular artists of the day such as Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket and The Cranberries, the soundtrack also features a handful of classic tunes like “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles and “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” by AC/DC (one of my favorite scenes in the movie – Empire’s manager Joe is blowing off steam by playing his drums along with the song, while the rest of the staff dances along from their various corners of the store). The movie ends with everyone on the roof, dancing along to the strains of The The’s magnificent “This Is the Day”.
Growing up, I had access to several authentic independent record stores in the downtown Ann Arbor area, my favorite of which was Schoolkids’ Records. Schoolkids’ was located on E. Liberty Street, next door to the marvelous Michigan Theater. It was the antithesis of the retail chain I would work for later on (the “Town” in Empire Records‘ “Musictown”). My friends and I would scour the racks for rare 12″ singles and imports, then go have snacks at Drake’s Sandwich Shop. Schoolkids’ – and music in general – made my adolescence a little more tolerable. Sadly, neither Schoolkids’ nor Drake’s is still open. Time marches on.
Back to Empire Records: as I always do, I will celebrate Rex Manning Day by A) listening to the soundtrack and B) watching the movie. It’s the least I can do to honor a movie that’s brought me so much joy.
You can rent Empire Records on Google Play, Vudu or Amazon. You can listen to the complete soundtrack here: