BBQ Films and Rough Trade NYC Toast Twenty Years of Empire Records
Johnny Whitworth and Liv Tyler in a promotional still from Empire Records
via Monarchy Enterprises
Empire Records, the 1995 film about the teen employees of a record store struggling to stay afloat, holds a measly 24 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Created to cash in on the mid-Nineties alt-rock zeitgeist, it flopped at the box office after critics panned it as predictable and fluffy despite a terrific soundtrack and endearing performances from young soon-to-be stars. It was released on the brink of the music industry's collapse. Being doomed to late-night TV rotation seemed a fitting fate.
Gabriel Rhoads muses upon these less-than-auspicious beginnings as he sits upstairs at Rough Trade, the massive Williamsburg indie record store that opened last year. The founder and CEO of immersive film screening company BBQ Films is in the middle of planning the latest chapter in Empire's saga of underdog success: a twentieth-anniversary event celebrating its enduring status as an unlikely cult hit, rescued from obscurity by obsessive music fans who discovered and cherished it over the last two decades. Rhoads and his mostly volunteer crew of movie lovers are transforming Rough Trade into the film's titular location for three nights starting on April 8, the same date on which the movie's story unfolds.
He is, for lack of a better word, really stoked about it. The BBQ team — which has so far hosted events themed around Back to the Future, The Fifth Element, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and American Psycho — had an Empire celebration on their wish list for a future party. But the location, particularly crucial to this film, repeatedly eluded them. That all changed when Rhoads visited the shop. "I remember walking into Rough Trade for the first time, for an X Ambassadors show," he says. "It was instantaneous. I was like, 'Oh my God. This is Empire Records.' "
Helping him bring this vision to life are George Flanagan, Rough Trade's store manager, and Sebastian Freed, who books shows there through Bowery Presents. As they riff off each other's anticipation for the upcoming blowout, their enthusiasm for the film, its legacy, and the community it sanctifies is infectious. "It's exciting, because we're a fan of anything that celebrates record-store culture," says Flanagan. "There's just this and High Fidelity. It was a perfect fit."
Empire Records takes place over a single 24-hour period. A particularly droll young employee discovers plans for a chain takeover of the store while closing up one night, and takes $9,000 of the store's cash to Atlantic City in an attempt to win enough to stop the sale. He loses it all at craps, and over the next day he and the other employees scramble to make it back. They also contend with Rex Manning Day, an in-store promotional event for a badly aging pop singer; the halfhearted ire of their begrudgingly protective adult boss, Joe; and the familiar, routine struggles of senior year (it is a teen movie, after all). Spoiler alert: It all turns out fine and ends with a dance party behind the store's vintage neon sign.
Because every scene but the gambling sequence takes place at the store, the space "is in a way the star of the movie," says Flanagan. "They never really leave. It's so perfectly aligned" to Rough Trade, whose cavernous main floor bears an uncanny resemblance to Empire's set. Rhoads agrees: Rather than forcing his team to pick between dozens of often elaborate locales depicted in a given story, this event allows them to re-create the world of a film in unprecedented depth. "I don't think BBQ will be able to do anything the same way after this," he says.
Considering everything they have planned for the run, it's indeed hard to imagine how they'll top it. In addition to the screening itself, they're incorporating over a dozen iconic details from the film into the interactive environment of the party. Some are small, like gluing quarters to the shop floor, or relatively straightforward, like offering perks to guests who shave their head in honor of the character who does the same. Others are somewhat astonishing: In addition to a different lineup of indie bands playing the Rough Trade stage every night, they've booked legendary metal rockers Gwar to play all three dates in sync with the group's onscreen performance during a fantasy sequence.
Few of these details — most notably the bands — were released when tickets went on sale; nonetheless, all three nights sold out in two minutes. Rhoads credits the unexpected frenzy to Empire's history as a film rescued by its fans, whose dedication to the story has paid off in the form of connection with other music lovers. "There's also the aspect of [music stores] that have a huge film section," adds Rough Trade's Flanagan. "There's a cool factor that comes along with stumbling on something in a record store." That's not unlike how many of the film's fans discovered it on VHS tapes.
The idyllic dream life of a boom-era record shop immortalized in Empire all but disappeared shortly after the film's release. The film's persistence is an unusual mix of nostalgia and excitement that the dream is, against steep odds, very much alive. Massive chains like Virgin and HMV, or the fictional Music Town that threatens Empire, have collapsed; highly personable indie shops filled with the sorts of characters in the film have fared far better. "On a busy Saturday it feels like that vibe, going back to [the] heyday of the Nineties," says Flanagan, who's worked in record shops for most of his life. While he admits the industry will likely never return to its peak levels, "the little things you took for granted then are so great to feel again."
Even more surprising to the organizers is the discovery of a dedicated fan base too young to have seen Empire's debut or the golden era that inspired it. "It's wild to me that there's a generation that didn't grow up with record stores," Flanagan says. "But now [teens] are coming into the store and think it's so cool." Freed, of Bowery Presents, thinks Rough Trade's dual identity as shop and stage represents the vanguard of the music industry, one that satisfies both generations. "This is both halves: buying a record, and then being able to take ten more steps and see the band live," he says. "Or falling in love with an opening band and then being able to buy their record right outside. This space is hopefully on its way to becoming an Empire Records."
As the event that brought them together approaches, all three are eager to see the results of their collaboration. Flanagan and Freed have given Rhoads and BBQ near-free rein for their takeover, and despite being involved in every facet of the production, Rhoads can never anticipate how fans will interact with the environments his team creates. The "brain trust," as he calls the BBQ family, surprises him every time with what they manage to pull off.
"I've rewatched the movie a lot lately for the production, and I [identify] with the boss now. I identify with Joe," Rhoads says, beginning to glow with pride. "I now run a creative team and I feel responsible for taking care of them. Watching Joe take care of his community resonates with me."
BBQ Films started with a screening of The Blues Brothers Rhoads organized with his wife on their roof. He sees his company as a real-world sister to Empire Records, fueled by passion and a scrappy ethos. The film is set in an unnamed Delaware city, but Rex Manning Day, as BBQ has dubbed the party, could only conceivably happen in New York, according to Rhoads. "If there's something out there that you don't see but you want to go to, you can just go make it," he says of the city's creative energy. "And then you make it, and other people are like, 'Oh, I want to do that, too!' And then all of a sudden, you have a company."
BBQ Films and Rough Trade NYC present Rex Manning Day: A 20th Anniversary Screening of Empire Records at Rough Trade NYC April 8–April 10. All three nights are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
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