“Damn the man! – Save the Empire!”
Empire Records is a coming-of-age film that follows a group of record store employees over the course of one exceptional day. The employees of this independent music store try to avoid being sold to a large chain, all while learning about each other.
Empire Records is a small, independent record shop managed by Joe (Anthony LaPaglia). The store is set in an unnamed city in Delaware, and, like the employees, is eclectic and unique. The staff is very much a self-created family, with Joe as the reluctant and perpetually exasperated but loveable father figure.
The film opens as Joe allows night-time manager, Lucas (Rory Cochrane), to close the store for the first time ever. While counting the day’s receipts, Lucas discovers that Empire Records is about to be converted into a branch of Music Town, a franchise music store. In an attempt to save the store, Lucas takes the day’s cash receipts to Atlantic City. While initially very lucky, he loses the entire amount. Instead of going home—the same home in which Joe resides—Lucas is found sleeping outside the store on his motorcycle the following morning by opening manager A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) and fellow employee Mark (Ethan Embry) and confides in the pair of the previous night’s events before riding away. Joe arrives to help open the store and is phoned by both the bank and the store owner, Mitchell Beck (Ben Bodé), about the missing deposit.
Joe is distracted from dealing with this immediate crisis due to a scheduled store event: Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield), a former pop idol and child star, is due to arrive to sign autographs and promote his new album. No one is really looking forward to “Rex Manning Day“, and many of the fans coming in for autographs are either older women or gay men. The employees secretly tease Rex behind his back about his fading career, and even his assistant Jane (Debi Mazar) later reveals her distaste for Rex’s music.
Lucas returns after the store opens and is confronted by Joe about the missing deposit. After telling him of his whereabouts, Lucas is asked to stay in the store until a plan is devised to return the $9,000 deposit. Next to arrive are cashier Corey (Liv Tyler), an overachieving high school student, and her overzealous best friend and fellow cashier Gina (Renée Zellweger), both of whom are told Lucas’ secret. Soon thereafter arrives hostile employee, Deb (Robin Tunney), followed by boyfriend, Berko (Coyote Shivers), who seem to be in the midst of an unresolved lover’s quarrel; both are aware of Lucas’ secret.
The afternoon continues to spiral downward: A young shoplifter who identifies himself only as Warren Beatty (Brendan Sexton III) is apprehended outside the store by Lucas and is arrested. Encouraged by Gina, Corey’s school-girl crush on Rex is pushed to its limits, much to the horror of her friends, including A.J., who has a long time crush on her, and moving into a revelation of Corey’s drug habit, Gina being scolded by Corey for sleeping with Rex Manning, and Rex getting kicked out of the store.
Although already revealed, Deb takes Corey aside and advises her on the road she is taking, which may lead her into the similar path of suicide. In return, Corey holds a mock funeral and the whole store attends, and Deb removes her bandages revealing her cuts as a “cry for attention.” Gina had left the store and finally returns apologizing to Corey. “Warren” returns with a gun and holds up the store. Deb boldly confronts Warren, confusing him and distracting him from his plan, and the rest of the staff persuade Warren into admitting that he only returned because he felt kinship with the rest of the misfits in the store, leading Joe to offer him a job.
After the police leave, Lucas admits defeat, and suggests calling Mitchell. However, the co-workers, Joe, and Jane—who has since quit working for Rex—pool their resources to replace the missing money. Despite their best efforts, they are thousands short. Suddenly inspired, Mark runs out of the store, jumps in front of a news crew covering the holdup, and announces a late night benefit party to “Save the Empire”.