14 Surprising Facts About Empire Records

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Nearly a quarter-century after its original release, Empire Records is in the news again. In early April, Deadline reported that a stage version of the 1995 cult hit is being developed for Broadway, with an eye toward a 2020 debut, to mark the film's 25th anniversary. The premise of Allan Moyle’s Generation X movie staple is pretty straightforward—a group of teenagers working in an independent record store try to combat a corporate chain from taking it over—but it connected with audiences in a deep (and lasting) way. Featuring rising stars Liv Tyler, Renée Zellweger, and Ethan Embry, the movie was released on September 22, 1995 to barely any fanfare. Somehow, years later, fans discovered it and have helped keep its memory alive. Here are some “damn the man” facts about the movie.

1. THE MOVIE FLOPPED IN THEATERS.

The film grossed just $293,879. Originally, Warner Bros. planned to release the film in 1250 theaters on September 22, 1995, but the studio wasn’t happy with the film, so they didn’t promote it in any way—no ad campaign, no big Hollywood premiere. The $10 million film, which only screened in 87 theaters, grossed $180,286 in its first week, but by the second weekend, it was practically out of theaters. (The film went wider in October but only grossed $16,645 more.) Out of 280 films released in 1995, Empire Records ranks as the year’s 236th highest grossing movie. It’s not the bottom, but it’s pretty close.

2. THE SOUNDTRACK FARED MUCH BETTER THAN THE MOVIE.

The soundtrack, which only featured 16 out of 50 songs used in the movie, cracked the top 100 Billboard charts and spawned two hit songs. The Gin Blossoms’s “Til I Hear It From You” was written by band members Jesse Valenzuela and Robin Wilson and musician Marshall Crenshaw. The song peaked at number five on the Billboard chart and was the Gin Blossoms’s first song to enter the top 20. Edwyn Collins’s “A Girl Like You” was also a hit, peaking at number seven on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart. On 2012’s Record Store Day, a vinyl edition of the soundtrack was released.

3. THE SOUNDTRACK VERSION OF “SUGAR HIGH” WAS NOT THE INTENDED MIX.

In the movie, Zellweger performed the song with Coyote Shivers. During an interview with Consequence of Sound, Shivers explained why the version he and Zellweger sang in the movie isn’t the one that appeared on the soundtrack. Apparently the record company didn’t want it on the soundtrack, and the music supervisor thought the song was too loud. But when the song’s producer declined to remaster it, the supervisor picked “the rough mix that was meant just for playback while filming. And the label put it as the last song on the record on the original pressing,” Shivers said.

4. ANGELINA JOLIE ALMOST PLAYED THE PART OF DEB.

In hindsight, it would have made sense for Jolie to play the shaved-head and suicidal Deb, a role that eventually went to Robin Tunney. Producer Alan Riche described Jolie as being “a force of nature,” and considered her for the other female roles but “she was just too much.” Which begs the question: Would Jolie have actually shaved her head like Tunney did in a scene?

5. TOBEY MAGUIRE WAS CAST IN THE MOVIE BUT DROPPED OUT DUE TO PERSONAL REASONS.

IMDb credits Maguire’s role as “Andre,” but the scenes he shot were cut. Empire Records filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina and director Allan Moyle forced all the actors to live in beachfront properties next door to each other to create real friendships. According to a BuzzFeed article:

“Maguire showed up, felt aimless, may or may not have consumed a psychotropic drug, and somehow ended up in the basement of Moyle’s beach house eating a giant bowl of cereal. Moyle found him there, they talked for several hours, Maguire asked to go back to Hollywood to figure his life out and write a screenplay. Moyle agreed to buy it; Maguire returned to Hollywood—and, as far as Moyle knew, never wrote the script. But two years later, he was the star of The Ice Storm; eight years later, he was Spider-Man.”

Ethan Embry remembered it differently, though. “I don’t remember him coming out [to North Carolina],” he told The Wrap. “I remember seeing him at an audition and I remember smoking a cigarette with him while we were both waiting to go in. I had totally forgotten that he was out there until people started talking about it again.”

6. COYOTE SHIVERS LIED ABOUT HIS AGE TO GET THE PART OF BERKO.

Originally, producers wanted Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day to play the role, but his touring schedule wouldn’t allow for it. Shivers, who at the time of casting was in his late 20s, got picked to play the teen Berko. In 2015, Shivers told Consequence of Sound he lied about his age because the producers wanted a teenager to play the role and “I looked young anyway.” Shivers said the producers later found out that he was Liv Tyler’s stepdad at the time (he is only 12 years older than Tyler), which exposed him for his real age. That, and him getting car insurance in North Carolina with the over-26-years-old rate.

7. ETHAN EMBRY HAD A CRUSH ON LIV TYLER ... AND SO DID EVERYBODY ELSE.

“I just remember having the biggest crush on [Liv]. Ever. Which was very difficult, because then we went to shoot That Thing You Do! and I still had a f***ing crush on her,” Embry told The Wrap. During a Rex Manning Day video message, Maxwell Caulfield relayed how everybody in the cast took to Liv. “Liv Tyler was at the center of it all,” he said. “Everybody was gravitating to this young, emerging swan.” 

8. RENÉE ZELLWEGER AND RORY COCHRANE WERE DATING AT THE TIME.

Renée Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Johnny Whitworth and Liv Tyler in 'Empire Records' (1995)
Warner Bros.

The couple met on the set of Dazed and Confused (Zellweger had a brief cameo) two years prior to filming Empire Records. They also appeared together in the 1994 film Love and a .45. Cochrane (who plays the store’s night manager Lucas) encouraged Zellweger to audition for the film, and she got the part of store employee Gina. In the movie, the stoner logo from Dazed and Confused appears on a cash register.

9. THE STUDIO MADE ALLAN MOYLE TONE DOWN THE FILM.

At one point, the studio took the movie from the director and wouldn’t let him have final cut of it. “The studio was in a cocaine mentality, while we at the movie were in a pot mentality,” Moyle explained to BuzzFeed. Even though the script contained R-rated material, the studio wanted a PG-13 rating and rid the movie of much of its swearing and scenes of the teenagers smoking marijuana (eating pot brownies seemed to be okay, though).

10. THE SCENE WHEN MARK HALLUCINATES BEING AT A GWAR CONCERT WAS ACTUALLY FILMED DURING A GWAR CONCERT.

It wasn’t in the script, but Embry’s character Mark eats a pot brownie (Embry joked that the brownies were made with real pot) while watching a video of the band GWAR on TV, then imagines he’s in the TV. During filming in North Carolina, actor James “Kimo” Wills (Eddie) spotted a flyer for a GWAR show and told Embry about it. Moyle hadn’t heard of GWAR but let Embry concoct a scenario.

“Man, GWAR is coming to town and I think Mark should have a fantasy where’s he’s playing with GWAR, and they did it,” Robin Tunney, imitating Embry, recalled during a BuzzFeed LA Empire Records reunion, in August. “And then Allan let us take a camera to the GWAR concert and I drank Jägermeister with the bass player from GWAR,” Embry chimed in. He also talked to Vanity Fair about filming the concert. “We did a couple takes of it, and the audience was just standing there like, ‘What is going on?’—and then they continued with their show.”

11. TOM JONES INSPIRED REX MANNING’S WARDROBE.

Costume designer Susan Lyall told BuzzFeed how former 1980s pop idol Rex Manning’s over-the-top wardrobe came to be. She found the purple satin shirt at New York’s Trash and Vaudeville and then added fringe to it. She described the fashion as being “Tom Jones + Rod Stewart + Trash and Vaudeville.”

12. “REX MANNING DAY” IS CELEBRATED ON APRIL 8TH EVERY YEAR.

A flyer on a door in the movie announces Rex’s in-store appearance as “April 8th,” which is why it’s honored then. Maxwell Caulfield played the ridiculous singer Rex Manning, who shows up at Empire Records for an album signing. In 2015, for the film's 20th anniversary (and Rex Manning Day), Brooklyn's Rough Trade Records tricked out its storefront to look like the record store in the film, replete with actors Ethan Embry, Johnny Whitworth, and the band GWAR making surprise appearances. Caulfield was unable to make the event, but a tanned stand-in recreated the “Say No More (Mon Amour)” video and snapped photos with fans.

13. REX MANNING DAY IS A TRIBUTE TO KURT COBAIN.

A photo of Kurt Cobain performing with Nirvana.
Getty Images

Screenwriter Carol Heikkinen based the script on her time working at Tower Records, and keeping with the music theme, she slipped in an important date. “I was just talking to the writer [Carol], and she was saying it’s in one of the drafts,” Ethan Embry revealed to The Wrap in 2015. “April 8th is the same day they found Kurt Cobain’s body. It’s not the day he died. We shot that the same year they found him, so it represents the death of a rock star. Nobody ever says it in the movie. Nobody ever says April 8th.”

14. THE CAST HAD NO IDEA HOW POPULAR THE MOVIE BECAME.

In 2013, Embry and several of the other cast members attended an outdoor screening of the film in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood, which is when they realized just how much people loved the movie. “[It was] like, ‘Let’s just go and watch it and make fun of ourselves,” Embry told Vanity Fair in 2015. “And I took a picture of the five of us together, and it exploded on Twitter. And we all sat there wondering why.” The cast reunited again in July 2014 for a screening at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, where 4000 fans came out for the film and a Q&A session. Some of the cast got together again for Rex Manning Day 2018.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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