That Thing You Do! vs. Empire Records: Which Is the Better Nineties Music Flick?


Whether or not you’re a Wonders fan or have been making your own MARC buttons since the first time Rex Manning Day rolled around, you’ve probably seen — and loved — both That Thing You Do! and Empire Records. 1994–1996 doled out teen-oriented movies that would eventually become cult classics by the handful, with Clueless, The Craft, Clerks, and other coveted titles constantly evading the grasp of eager viewers as video stores couldn’t keep the VHS tapes on the shelves. That Thing You Do! and Empire Records made for two of these films, and the number of fans who can recite each flick verbatim has only snowballed in the two decades following their initial releases.

Empire Records turns twenty in 2015 and is in the midst of a three-night birthday shindig at Rough Trade NYC, but the question remains: Is it really that great a movie, and does it pale in comparison with its peers? Here are two essays — one defending Empire‘s validity as a cult classic, one dubbing That Thing You Do! the superior film — so read on if you’re looking for a reason to justify that Guy Patterson bobblehead purchase or your Doc Martens fetish.


Empire Records and That Thing You Do! were made just a year apart —1995 and 1996, respectively. Both feature Ethan Embry and Liv Tyler in early roles. And both deal with the musician and music lover’s dilemma: How do you keep a good thing going?

I guess we’ll have to wait a year before we can say with certainty that twenty years later, Empire Records is the more beloved movie. Rough Trade and BBQ Films’ homage to the film — which kicked off on April 8, or Rex Manning Day, as per the film’s celebration of the fictional Eighties pop icon — invites fans to revel in a replication of the music shop, complete with live music, a “head-shaving station,” and a screening of the film.

But no amount of promotional fuss can convince me that Empire Records is superior to That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’s feature directorial debut. That Thing tells the story of the (one hit) Wonders, a band from Erie, Pennsylvania, circa 1964 that strikes gold when its drummer breaks his arm and the group has to hire a replacement (Guy, played by Tom Everett Scott) to play a local college talent show. They win the talent show, by a long shot, after Guy surprises his new bandmates by speeding up the song they had prepared for the show, a poppy, neon-bright earworm called “That Thing You Do,” which, in the real world, was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar in 1996.

Empire Records is unmistakably set in the present. If the cropped sweaters and miniskirt/combat boots combination isn’t enough to indicate the mid-Nineties, the film’s anti-corporate ethos will tip you off. We’re talking about a movie that boasts the taglines “They’re selling music but not selling out,” and “Damn the man! Save the Empire!” Over the course of one day, the ragtag employees of the store learn that their beloved Empire Records is in danger of being sold to a chain. The ruffians rally, and by the end, they’ve figured out a way to raise enough money to save the store and hold a celebratory concert on the roof.

Empire Records is a fantasy, of course, and it’s aimed at a demographic that has always gobbled up fantasies faster than it does empty calories: teenagers. I’m never one to shit on a fantasy that makes people happy; I’m a fan of both Game of Thrones and Nashville. But this fantasy hasn’t aged very well. Empire Records is a Frankenstein’s monster of Nineties clichés, including the troubled goth (Debra) and the cheesy avatar of the inauthentic Eighties (Rex Manning, who we know is a talentless hack because older women and gay men enjoy his music). And the by-the-numbers plot — will they raise the money to save the store? — ties up neater than a mall gift-wrap job.

While Empire Records compresses its action to a single day, That Thing develops more organically. Its vision of the music industry is no less skeptical, but in contrast to Empire‘s forced sense of urgency, it’s a much more nuanced and truthful depiction of how things fall apart. After the Wonders win the talent show, they get a regular gig at a restaurant, and then decide to cut a record with the help of Guy’s uncle. The record gets the attention of a small-time manager, who offers to help the band get wider recognition. In a wonderful (no pun intended) setpiece, Tyler’s Faye, the longtime girlfriend of the band’s lead singer, hears the song on the radio for the first time. Soon, she and the band members burst through the doors of the appliance store where Guy works, cranking up all the radios while screaming and dancing around the store.

Then comes a big-time manager (played by Tom Hanks), a real record contract, a national tour, and, finally, a performance on live TV. The Wonders’ rise to the top of the charts is fast, but nothing happens overnight — except their demise, which comes on the heels of that live performance. The guitar player takes off to Las Vegas to marry a girl he’s just met. The lead singer quits. As Hanks’s Mr. White tells Guy, “It’s a very common tale.”

Empire Records is a great movie to watch as a scowling, alienated, confused teenager. When you watch it as an adult, though, it makes you wonder how you ever found wisdom in this pile-on of clichés. But That Thing You Do! only deepens when you view it as an adult. The emotional impact of its rise-and-fall trajectory hits even harder, and it’s easier to comprehend how something that once seemed so exciting and full of promise can fizzle out in an instant.


That Thing You Do! and Empire Records have contributed some of the most memorable musical scenes to hit theaters in the Nineties and for years after that, but one simple truth reigns above them both: One of these films is a cult classic, and the other, quite simply, is not. And the one that is doesn’t need Tom Hanks, his Clubmasters, or the Playtone galaxy’s pop progressions to keep it playing in perpetuity.

Aside from their ability to clutch at the heartstrings of music fans better than any other flick from the Nineties, Empire Records and That Thing You Do! have very little in common beyond the killer soundtracks and the cast members they share between them. That Thing You Do! follows a group of small-town rock ‘n’ roll hopefuls as they navigate the fast-burning, meteoric course of their big break and all the perks and pitfalls that churn in its wake. In Empire Records, we watch an independent record store fight against an impending corporate takeover while its employees aid and thwart their own cause over the course of a single day. One movie offers up matching suits, early-Sixties optimism, and the wholesome intentions of a bright-eyed band attempting to navigate the opportunity of a lifetime, with the occasional dressing-room disagreement thrown in for good measure. The other tackles — in exactly 90 minutes — suicide, drugs, rough sex on photocopy machines, and the all-too-common bitchy, brutal fights that spring up among a group of friends that spends entirely too much time together. One’s PG, the other PG-13. (We may have Rex Manning’s royal-blue jockeys to thank for that distinction.)

Let’s start with the premises of each: Both That Thing You Do! and Empire Records pit their main characters against the impossible, with the Wonders riding the success of a hit single from Erie to Hollywood and the Empire gang miraculously raising enough money to save their place of employment from the stifling shackles of a major record store chain’s imminent buyout. That Thing You Do! and Empire Records both put a spin on a classic trope — “Be careful what you wish for!” vs. your typical misfit-underdog tale — but Empire succeeds in doing this in the most relatable way.

That Thing You Do! plays it safe on every plane, while Empire Records doesn’t shy away from exposing the cringeworthy moments — the stuff that makes its characters human instead of Disneyfied versions of rock stars — as they come together to try to save the store. That Thing You Do! barely touches on the less glamorous parts of chasing the dream that Guy, Faye, Jimmy, and the rest of the Wonders crew encounter as they try to keep from self-imploding in the face of success (and fail to do so), but Empire Records relishes in it, from Mark’s adventures in psychedelics to Deb’s disturbing, violent behavior to Corey’s harmful perfectionism.

And that’s to say nothing of the music. The That Thing You Do! soundtrack is great, chock-full of original compositions (with most penned in part by Hanks, who both directed and featured in the film) and copping the talents of Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger, who wrote the hit of the same name. Empire Records services a very different soundtrack need in that it’s a perfect mixtape that reflects both the plot of the movie and the time period in which it’s set, with its own single — “Sugar High” — summing it all up in a perfect pop-punk blast at the climax of the flick. It’s one thing to bank on the talents of an established musician to revisit some beat-to-hell rock riffs that have been written and rewritten since the Beatles flew over in 1964 (the year in which the Wonders make their debut). It’s another to cultivate a smattering of soon-to-be alt- and pop-rock hits that play just as strong a part in the movie as the characters do.

Most can relate to the creative squabbles and frustrating pressures presented by That Thing You Do!, and hell, everyone wants to ditch the town they grew up in and chase the dream, be it a Billboard chart-topping hit, true love, or some perfectly packaged combination of the two. But all can identify with at least one member of the Empire Records staff as they try to keep their shit together on Rex Manning Day — and the songs they’re singing along with as they go about their business and bullshit — and that’s the secret of its endurance.

“That Thing You Do!” may get stuck in your head after a single listen, but the one-liners from Empire Records — coupled with “Sugar High,” “Til I Hear It From You,” and every other power-chord-blasting track that fuels the fire of its nostalgia — are eternal quips that are just as funny today as they were in 1995.

And to anyone who feels otherwise? I don’t feel the need to explain my art to you, Warren.

See also:
BBQ Films and Rough Trade NYC Toast Twenty Years of
Empire Records
Tribute Bands Give Crowds What They Want…i.e., Songs They Know
‘Supermodel’ Singer Jill Sobule Remembers Nineties New York