For three nights only, Rough Trade in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been transformed into Empire Records by a group of loving and devoted film nerds united under one name: BBQ Films. I went on Thursday, the second night of festivities, and as I got off the L and began to walk towards the venue, I overheard a group of kids talking about their favorite characters from the film, a quintessential ’90s cult-status flick about an eponymous record store and the attempts by its employees to save it. One kid en route to Rough Trade — I mean Empire Records — was fresh-faced and seemed like he was barely out of high school, but admitted to the group that he’d dressed up as Ethan Embry’s character Mark, the nutty and wired red-head from the movie. “I’m Mark,” he said, self-assured and calm. “Mark’s the coolest.”
Honestly, I kind of thought the kid was a dork. I was a real fucking cynic, and I showed up thinking that he’d shown too much enthusiasm for a thing, like a kid who spends days and days lining up for a movie like Green Lantern and is bummed when he’s the only person in the theater at the midnight showing. But as I walked into Rough Trade and saw the creative, colorful cast of characters that were queuing up in front of the box office and the doors to the venue, I couldn’t help but feel incredibly glad that I was wrong. A guy dressed up as the manager, Joe, screamed at his employees from the top of the staircase, and the entire cast scrambled about the store, chatting with customers and making sure that everybody was all set. Now, being a tremendous dork, I’m no stranger to costumed freaks and the cosplayers who love them, but I didn’t really expect how many people would turn out in full ’90s regalia. It seemed you couldn’t throw a quarter without hitting someone dressed exactly like Empire Records stars Liv Tyler or Renee Zellweger, and the amount of schoolgirl skirts in the room could have easily outfitted an entire Catholic school’s sophomore class.
Even the location seemed to be film-accurate. Rough Trade itself was transformed into a playground of Empire Records-themed activities. I mean, you could still go in there and purchase the new Mountain Goats if you wanted to; the store was open (and I recommend the new Mountain Goats), but there was so much else to do! There was a button-making station tucked away on the second floor, where Williamsburg’s Nostalgics took to making pieces of flair that truly spoke to who they were deep down inside. Across the way, a head-shaving station was opened up, where later in the night, a very special guest would shear locks off the heads of the faithful, exactly as Debra did in the movie. Girls and guys of all shapes and sizes, all BBQ Films volunteers, collected dollar bills, purporting to save the record store. It was a zoo, in the best sense of the word, and even though the line stretched around the entire record store section of the venue, nobody whined.
As the doors opened, New York’s Charly Bliss took the stage, with singer Eva Hendricks dressed as Renee Zellweger’s character, Gina, bouncing around and screaming along. Charly Bliss’s energy was the perfect way to start off the night — a swell amount of dinosaur bass, they had great energy and life. Their set was comprised of mostly original material, and it was the perfect fulfillment of Gina’s band-fronting dreams from the film. A perfect amount of we-don’t-give-a-fuck bravado.
After a brief intermission, Madison, Wisconsin power-pop mainstays Locksley took the stage and began to blow minds. This band ran the influence gauntlet, spanning from rockabilly to ’90s pop-punk, awesome for the record store nerds who could only hope to make a genre hopping mix tape like the band’s set in their wildest dreams. Their harmonies were so beautiful that Brian Wilson himself would have been jealous, and they had a great feel for what the audience wanted and what the night was going to be like. Bassist Jordan Laz cracked jokes about how they were here to pay tribute to Empire Records, “not the Empire records from the show, you know, the one run by Terrence Howard on Fox.” Later in the night, I’d run into them taking a photo opportunity with the one, the only, Rex Manning and a gaggle of girls from his “Say No More, Mon Amor” video. They all seemed to be having a shit-ton of fun on their mattress, so I left them to it.
As it is with most BBQ Films events, Locksley was followed by a brief intermission, where the co-creator of the series, Gabriel Rhoads, thanked the audience and the volunteers for their hard work over the past few months. He expounded upon the importance of Opening Act, the arts education charity that all of the proceeds would be going to, before announcing the winner of one of three raffles, who was awarded a Chainsaw Kittens t-shirt by none other than the former frontman of the group, Tyson Meade. She was quickly whisked away to some corner of the venue, and the lights darkened.
Thus began a screening of the movie in question, to which I zoned out. I mean, it might have been the ‘Gansett, but I got lost in it all over again. Occasionally, the cosplayers as is the case with any good midnight movie, took the stage and acted out bits and pieces of the film. This all continued as planned, until Mark, after eating too many extra-sugar filled brownies, got lost in a TV screen and encountered MOTHERFUCKING GWAR, who took the stage to reward the winner of the night’s grand raffle, where she was eaten by the same plant that ate Mark. And fucking Mark (a couple of years older, of course, but still looking good) came out as she went in! Ethan Embry (a man who was recently awesome in The Guest and Cheap Thrills), who played the lovable sugar-freak, took the stage to announce the winners of the other raffle (of Gwar, he said “[those] motherfuckers gave me my first shot of Jagermeister when I was 15 years old!”).
We were then returned to the movie, and much headbanging and flannel ripping was had among the faithful audience, right up until the credits rolled. At this point, I’ll admit to a hard truth — I was in the store area of Rough Trade working on this very article instead of paying attention to the movie, up until a nice BBQ staffer told me to get the hell out-of-the-way so that Gwar could come through and do a signing. I moved away, and was able to get a nice picture of Rhoads, Embry and Gwar all around the signing table. And you know what? I got a poster signed by the dudes from Gwar, because I’m 14 years old eternally. And when the night’s DJ, Boston’s own Leah V, began to spin “Ice Ice Baby,” I’m not ashamed to admit that I broke it down with the members of Gwar, and we had a few minutes (actually, more like 30 seconds) of shared dancing hilarity before I was pushed out of the way to make room for people who wanted pictures. And that was cool! In fact, it was fucking awesome!
I made my way back into the venue section of Rough Trade, where Brooklyn’s The Falling Birds had taken the stage, and were playing the familiar chords of Blur’s “Song 2.” I wondered if I was at a hockey game or something, but these guys were there just to have fun. Their whole set was comprised of covers, to which they played their hearts out, and the crowd, decimated by the end of the movie and the raffle results, was there to have fun. I mean, hell, everybody was drunk enough at that point where some real life dancing could happen. The night ended with the band covering the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” and the signature track of the movie itself, Coyote Shivers’ “Sugarhigh,” and the costumed crew from BBQ dancing on the stage.
And that was the absolute perfect way to end the night: a bunch of people, earnestly loving the movie that they came to celebrate, dancing as the lights came up. And I couldn’t help myself. I joined in, dancing and hollering with the rest of them.
Damn the man. Save the Empire.
Editor’s Note: All photos by Nick Johnston. He apologies for the blurriness, but it was that kind of night.