Is anyone nostalgic for national chain record stores? There was a time—and it wasn’t too long ago—when they were everywhere, in practically every mall and every other shopping center in your suburban town. We can probably agree that most of these stores still don’t inspire much fondness in 2015. Does anyone pine for the days of flipping through $18.98 CDs at Sam Goody or FYE?
But Tower Records was different. Tower we miss. The supermarket-sized stores had character, and were by far the best option for music fans that didn’t have access to independent stores in cities. Tower Records locations were individually curated by different buyers, always had a robust selection, and clerks were knowledgeable and appropriately snobbish. Tower stood apart.
Actor Colin Hanks’ new documentary All Things Must Pass gives us the surprisingly compelling story of Tower Records, and it aims for and achieves a wistful, almost poignant tone. The film charts the store’s history from its beginnings in the back of a Sacramento drugstore in 1960, through the opening of landmark shops in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York at the height of the vinyl era, its year of $1 billion dollar earnings as an international chain and franchise in 1999, and its bankruptcy and closure only five years later. The story naturally overlaps with the trajectory of the record retail industry in the late 20th century, from the boom of pop music in the 60’s to the death knell for many shops, caused in part by big box stores (and of course, Napster), by the turn of the millennium.
In some ways, Hanks’ film is your typical classic rock-centric music doc. It has obligatory talking head interviews with go-to cred lenders like Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen, and the emphasis is on the late 60’s and early 70’s as the heyday of… well, everything. But All Things Must Pass has enough craft behind it to make it stand apart. Hanks’ editor Darrin Roberts deserves a huge amount of credit for taking what is essentially a business story and making it move at a brisk, energetic pace. And writer Steven Leckart was smart to focus the narrative on the colorful, eccentric characters behind the Tower company itself, including several former clerks who worked their way up to become board members. Founder Russ Solomon, who sold those first records in Sacramento and led the company until its final days, serves as the chatty, charismatic lead character, and he elevates the film with his witty personality.
There’s also an impressive amount of vintage footage of the flagship California stores in their 60’s and 70’s prime, much of it apparently sourced from TV news, in which hordes of customers swarm the aisles with stacks of records under their arms. It really conveys how big of a deal these stores were at the time, and how they functioned as cultural meccas for their respective geographic areas. Memorable among these clips is a hilarious scene where a glam-era Elton John pours through the racks at the L.A. store with his limo driver at his side, dutifully carrying his boss’s vinyl haul.
All Things Must Pass missteps only when it reaches too far for sentimentality, most notably in the film’s conclusion. Without giving too much away: Hanks clearly felt he needed a hopeful denouement so his movie didn’t just end on a tragic note with Tower’s 2006 liquidation. What he came up with unfortunately comes off as stagey and inauthentic in a way that the rest of the picture doesn’t.
Admirably, Hanks does succeed at capturing the attribute of record stores that really is worth being nostalgic for—the community and social hub that developed among customers and clerks back when physical media was the only way to hear music you wanted outside of radio and TV. That vibe was present in the room at the screening of the film at the SF DocFest in San Francisco in June, where the audience was full of former employees from the city’s shuttered North Beach store, all cheering as familiar faces came on screen.
update: The movie will be released this fall in theaters by Gravitas Ventures.
This piece was written by Matt Scott and is part of an ongoing documentary review series. New reviews will post on the 2nd Wednesday of every month. Catch the next review on September 9, 2015.
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