The record store chain Tower Records anchors a pretty good history of the rise and fall of the American music business in “All Things Must Pass,” a documentary by the actor Colin Hanks — son of Tom.
Here was a concept — “The largest record/tape store in the known world” — a record store whose departments (classical, jazz, rock, rap, pop, country, etc.) were as large, by themselves, as most record stores. Here was a slogan, “No Music, No Life,” that captured music lovers the world over, encouraging them to shop and in the process, find their tribe.
And up until the day that stolen or purchased online downloadable music killed it, that’s what Tower created — a place for the tribes to gather, where the clerks were the cognoscenti, the clerics of their genre.
Hanks, building the film around interviews with founder Russ Solomon and his son Michael, traces Tower from its origins, as a corner of Solomon’s father’s Sacramento drugstore, to the boom days when gigantic stores were at the center of the music universe — on Sunset Blvd. in LA, in San Francisco, Broadway and 4th in New York.
And everybody made a pilgrimage to these stores where music lived. Elton John haunted the L.A. location, his “ritual” consisting of coming in with long lists of LPs he wanted and an assistant to help him collect. There’s vintage footage of him doing just that in the ’70s.
“I spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being.”
Musician Dave Grohl and music mogul David Geffen wax enthusiastic. But leave it to Bruce Springsteen to find the poetry of the place.
It was where Springsteen said a music fan could find one’s “family” in a place imbued with “the thrill of being surrounded by music.” Tower — which hadn’t made it to the East Coast when Bruce first visited the Sunset store — was “that place where your dreams meet the listener. THERE are your listeners,” lining up, thumbing through the stacks, buying the music.
Alas, the film is not all poetry.”All Things Must Pass” bogs down in the trend-chasing, the rapid expansion, the conquest of Japan (where Tower Records is still going strong), the free spending. Hanks lets interview subjects trash corporate overseers who never have the chance to respond. He touches on the magazine the place put out, “Pulse,” but doesn’t sample it. He gives famous customers a voice, but not the faceless millions who kept the stores open and vital.
And he wastes an awful lot of time on interviews with company insiders who get to tell their climb-the-corporate ladder stories, but whose stories seem routine and repetitious. Their griping is very much of the “In OUR day, we had RECORDS and we SOCIALIZED at record stores, not on social media” variety. Kind of fuddy-duddy.
But there are some amusing anecdotes about the kids who came in the door, became clerks and went on to run the company as it grew almost in spite of the lax attitudes about on-the-job drinking, smoking and snorting. Many a sick day was related to “cocktail flu,” many a company invoice included “handtruck fuel,” their code for cocaine.
And the film, for all its shortcomings, does give us a taste of a world that was lost when such stores disappeared. Much the way bookstores have vanished in the same period of time.
A lot of things killed Tower — record company greed, customers disconnected with the in-store retail experience and the rise of an amoral Internet music culture. That provides the movie’s money quote about music, then and now. The speaker is talking about the late music “sharing” (theft) service Napster, and shaking his head.
“How’re you gonna compete with ‘free?'”
MPAA Rating: unrated, profanity, alcohol is consumed on camera
Cast: Russ Solomon, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl
Credits: Directed by Colin Hanks. A Gravitas release.
Running time: 1:34