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Last Shop Standing - Documentary Review

Added on by The Vinyl Exam.

LAST SHOP STANDING: THE RISE, FALL AND REBIRTH OF THE INDEPENDENT RECORD SHOP

Records Collecting Dust was a personal survey of record collections, and Vinylmania was a global survey of the different ways in which vinyl obsession manifests itself.  The 2012 documentary Last Shop Standing: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Independent Record Shop, which could be seen to form a sort of trilogy with the other two, takes a look at the history of record stores.  It’s a UK-focused film that looks at how shops in that country weathered the changes of the recording industry.  The film is based on the 2009 book of the same name by Graham Jones, a record distributor who witnessed the changes first-hand as he visited hundreds of shops on the job.

Across a fast-paced 48-minutes, director Pip Piper primarily tells the story through the eyes of various shop owners around the country.  Famous landmark stores are featured, such as London’s Rough Trade East and Chesterfield’s recently shuttered, 105-year old Hudson’s Record and Tape Centre.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper vinyl documentary without at least a few notable musicians on hand to praise vinyl and the place independent records stores have in their lives.  In the case of Last Shop Standing, we get to hear from UK icons Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Billy Bragg, and others.

While the doc has a fair dose of nostalgia and romanticism for the authenticity and superiority of vinyl, and the sense of community that a record store can provide, Last Shop Standing is more interested in the industry story.  In that way, it also makes an interesting companion to the recently released All Things Must Pass, which essentially tells the same tale but from the perspective of mega-chain Tower Records.

The first act of the film (the "rise" of the title) covers the explosion of recorded music in the 60's and the rise of the 45, and the boom that followed throughout the 70s and 80s.  Piper and Jones also touch upon some of the less savory practices that many shops took part in, including record companies' regular practice of influencing the charts by giving away loads of free records to mom-and-pop shops to sell.  

The movie's second act - the "fall" - focuses on reasons stores ran into trouble in recent decades. For a U.S. audience, this section may be the most interesting, as some the reasons the film gives are specific to the UK: discounted CD sales in supermarkets, and a legal loophole that made online CD sales there tax-free.  Other reasons will be more familiar—the rise of downloading, escalating rents on main commercial streets, and record companies' attempt to kill off vinyl in favor of the CD for the sake of increasing profit margins and getting fans to re-purchase their collections.  

The last third of the doc covers the "rebirth” of record stores in recent years—the film especially gives big credit to Record Store Day—is somewhat tempered by the fact that shops in the UK have gone from 2,200 to 280 in number by the time the film was made.  The film ends appropriately on a simple plea to support your local record stores, and avoids sentimentality.

Last Shop Standing is currently available for purchase on the film’s website, rental from various digital providers, and streaming on Amazon Prime.


This piece was written by Matt Scott and is part of a documentary review series. 

*  The Vinyl Exam does not take credit for the photos you see above. If you know who took these shots, let us know and we will gladly credit them appropriately.

Vinylmania - Documentary Review

Added on by The Vinyl Exam.

In the beginning there was silence.  Then came sound.

Humans searched for a way to entrap it, hoping they could keep it…  and tame it.

At the dawn of the third millennium, music seemed to be all around us.

In every place.  At every moment.  But where does music come from?

--

These are the opening voiceover lines of the 2012 documentary Vinylmania: When Life Runs at 33 Revolutions Per Minute, and it immediately gives you an idea of what you’re in for.  In last month’s review of 2015’s Records Collecting Dust, we remarked that the film didn’t bother to ask why its subjects love and collect vinyl, and we described that film as having “an open-hearted attitude” with “no trace of elitism or snobbery.”  Take the polar opposite of those observations, and you’ve got a rough sketch of Vinylmania.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. 

In fact, what makes Vinylmania enjoyable is that it has such a clear a point of view: vinyl is the best way to listen to music, vinyl is real, and the people who love and collect it know they are the true music listeners.  For anyone cynical of vinyl as a relevant medium in the 21st century, Vinylmania will be off-putting.  But for vinyl collectors, the film plays as 75 minutes of preaching to the choir.  One London-based DJ urgently proclaims that “the CD is a lie… the people who told you they sound better 20 years ago were lying, and they knew they were lying!  Nothing sounds better than vinyl.” 

The film is directed by Paolo Campana, a DJ and filmmaker based in Turin, Italy who assembled the film from almost a decade’s worth of footage.  It might be an indie-minded project (a Kickstarter campaign helped fund the DVD release), but Vinylmania has a varied and accomplished visual look. Campana provides the voiceover throughout the film himself, offering poetic, charmingly nonsensical lines like, “Gazing at these grooves, I feel like I’m traveling inside of them.”

Covering an array of different subjects related to vinyl, Vinylmania tends to ramble a bit, but the movie works as an episodic travelogue.  Campana begins by detailing his own vinyl obsessions—for example, he irons his 7-inch sleeves and hangs them out on clotheslines to dry—before branching out to interview others.  Over the course of several segments, Campana travels between London, San Francisco, Tokyo, Prague, New York, and other international locales to interview DJs, collectors, record pressers, and album cover artists. 

What emerges is a well-rounded study, biased as it may be, of why and how vinyl maintains such a big presence decades after it became obsolete in many people’s minds.  Campana is riffing on the different reasons vinyl can be so seductive: he visits the Japanese manufacturer of a laser record player (vinyl as technology), observes tourists at the Abbey Road zebra crossing (vinyl as iconic artwork), and profiles a number of record stores (vinyl as a product and as a hobby).  Campana seeks out people that share a passion for vinyl from different perspectives. 

All in all, while there are aspects of Vinylmania that may make some viewers’ eyes roll, the film serves as a positive, well-rounded celebration of vinyl and the different ways we obsess over it.

As of this writing, Vinylmania is available to stream on Amazon Prime (warning: this version is missing English subtitles for the many scenes that require them), digital rental or purchase through Amazon, or on DVD through the film’s website.


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 December 10, 2015. 

* The Vinyl Exam does not take credit for the photos you see above. If you know who took these shots, let us know and we will gladly credit them appropriately.  


Records Collecting Dust - Documentary Review

Added on by The Vinyl Exam.

The only thing vinyl collectors enjoy more than searching for records is the opportunity to talk about their collections.  The new documentary Records Collecting Dust has a simple mission.  San Diego-based filmmaker Jason Blackmore took his camera into the living rooms of 30 or so punk and alternative musicians and label owners, including luminaries such as Mike Watt of the Minutemen, Jello Biafra of The Dead Kennedys, Keith Morris and Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag, and many more, and he asks them all to tell stories about their record collections.

Records Collecting Dust is a charmingly DIY affair.  Shot on the cheap and with seemingly little to no crew, the film is made up almost entirely of interview footage, plus a few oddly placed interludes of live punk performance footage.  With each interviewee sitting among their personal stacks and shelves of LPs, the film simply rolls from one geeky topic to the next: the first record each musician ever bought, the stores they frequented as kids, favorite 45s, and so on.  

From Records Collecting Dust website

At first, the name-checked artists are unsurprising—with many of the subjects having grown up in the 60’s and 70’s, there’s repeated mention of early exposure to the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Kiss.  But Blackmore digs deeper and finds several amusing stories behind the collections.  As the film goes on, the records being discussed become more obscure, many leaning towards early hardcore punk titles from SST, Dischord and others. 

It’s wonderful to see a profile of vinyl collecting that has no trace of elitism or snobbery.  The film has a distinctly open-hearted attitude: this is the music we love, and this is the way we discovered it.  Despite the interviewees’ punk backgrounds, these folks are relatable to anyone with a music collection.  In one sequence, John “The Swami” Reis (Rocket From the Crypt, Drive Like Jehu) explains, without a trace of irony, how much he used to love “On Top of Spaghetti,” as he drops the needle on an old children’s turntable to play his favorite excerpts from the song.  And any notion of pretension is dispelled by the sequence near the end where the subjects discuss their most recent vinyl purchases, some of which include Lana Del Rey and Kendrick Lamar. 

From Records Collecting Dust website

Records Collecting Dust doesn’t bother to ask why its subjects love and collect vinyl.  That idea is simply taken as a given.  There’s thankfully no discussion of the rise of digital streaming or downloading or a plea to save or support independent record stores.  Blackmore is simply interested in documenting these people and their record collections.  His focus is narrow. 

What comes out the film is a feeling that’s not specific to the individuals being interviewed, the particular records or genres they love, or even necessarily vinyl records.  It’s about the idea of discovering and enjoying art that means something to you, and finding a way to share that enthusiasm with others. 

As of this writing, Records Collecting Dust is available to stream on Amazon Prime, and for digital rental or purchase at iTunes, Amazon and on their website


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 November 11, 2015. 

* The Vinyl Exam does not take credit for the photos you see above. If you know who took these shots, let us know and we will gladly credit them appropriately.  

Matt Scott, Photo by Ryan Jones

The Wrecking Crew - Documentary Review

Added on by The Vinyl Exam.

The Wrecking Crew, released in theaters and on video on-demand this past spring after years in the making, profiles the loosely defined collective of L.A.-based session musicians that played on an astonishing number of famous pop records in the 1960's.  It is commonly understood by many music fans that some of the biggest American groups of that era didn't play the instruments on their own recordings.  The Beach Boys and The Monkees are the most prominent examples, not to mention The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, The Association, and countless others.  But it's perhaps not as widely known that many of those recordings featured the same cadre of players.  The crew also played as Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, and on countless film and TV themes and soundtracks.

Given the many music documentaries released over the past decade or so that have focused on a certain recording studio culture – namely Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and most recently the Oscar-winning 20 Feet From Stardom – it was surprising that there wasn’t already a documentary about the 60's L.A. scene out there.  Actually, The Wrecking Crew was in production all along, having been assembled by director Denny Tedesco on and off since 1996.  The film premiered at festivals way back in 2008, and Tedesco had apparently been struggling to raise funds to license all of the recordings used in the film so it could finally be released commercially.

Carol Kaye in session

The Wrecking Crew is refreshing for a music industry documentary in that it is content to simply be a loving profile of a group of talented people.  Tedesco doesn't feel the need to inject drama or tension into the film as many other directors have.  The stories of the legendary music that these players created are compelling enough, as are the personalities of the musicians that Tedesco focuses on the most.  Prolific drummer Hal Blaine (most famous for his iconic drum intro on The Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and his role in The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) was the self-professed ringleader of the crew and gets most of the attention here.  Some players who later became big name artists in their own right, like Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, are present as well.  But the movie's most memorable character is Carol Kaye, the ubiquitous bassist and rare female session musician at the time.  Kaye is so sharp and witty in her interviews, and has a charming story ready for each song she’s asked about, that she really deserves her own film.  (Interestingly, Kaye has since angrily distanced herself from the film, claiming that it inaccurately portrays the era and she wishes she hadn’t participated.  She is also adamant the group was never actually called "The Wrecking Crew" at the time, and the term was coined by Blaine years later.)

Tommy Tedesco sitting on the stool, on guitar

The film does focus too much on the director’s late father, Wrecking Crew guitarist Tommy Tedesco, and to a distracting degree. The younger Tedesco had said that he was persuaded at a late stage to make the film more personal, and he did so by editing in sections throughout the film that offer his own sentimental voiceover narration over home movie footage of his father.  The approach is not only unnecessary, but it gives The Wrecking Crew a disjointed, more amateurish feel than it otherwise would have had. 

But it's great to see a documentary that takes a look at talented musicians that are not household names without feeling the need to argue that they were somehow slighted.  The Wrecking Crew musicians in the film recall the era with pride (and Kaye points out that they were all well paid at the time).  20 Feet From Stardom put forth the idea that its subject back-up singers deserved to be stars by nature of having great singing voices, and they were robbed of that dignity. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, acknowledges that for these hard-working professionals, who were at the top of their game and creating some of the most memorable music of the century, the work was the reward.


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 October 14, 2015. 

* The Vinyl Exam does not take credit for the photos you see above. If you know who took these shots, let us know and we will gladly credit them appropriately.  

Matt Scott, photo by Ryan Jones.