Reviews

Tower Records in a Nutshell: 'All Things Must Pass'

A nostalgic and warm look at a defunct record chain that brings the real substance and heart of the rise and fall.


All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

Director: Colin Hanks
Cast: Russ Solomon, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, Chris Cornell, David Geffen, Chuck D., Heidi Cotler, Stan Goman
Length: 94 minutes
Studio: Gravitas Ventures
Year: 2015
Distributor: FilmRise
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
UK Release Date: 2016-05-16
US Release Date: 2016-01-19

It seems that it wasn’t long ago that Tower Records stores were everywhere. That’s just about true. Two hundred stores across 30 countries on five continents is no small feat, especially for a vinyl vendor that literally grew out of a mom and pop shop in Northern California. Just as the company’s ubiquity seemed to be beyond doubt, the company went bankrupt and vanished.

I remember the announcement and I remember the aftermath as I walked out with a carload of cheap and hard-to-find DVDs, records and CDs before the famous red and yellow signs were taken down. Today I’m holding in my hands a DVD about Tower Records called All Things Must Pass, lovingly directed by Colin Hanks and thoroughly written by Steven Leckart that tells the story of the ups and downs of the once venerable record chain and the aftermath of its demise.

Of course the closing of the Tower stores is hardly a surprise, right? The company filed for bankruptcy in 2006 when brick and mortar stores were falling to the wayside thanks to the rise of the internet. iTunes took off in 2001, Tower Records folded in 2006. Coincidence?

Well, if it were that simple, we wouldn’t need a documentary like this one, would we?

To tell this story (and to make it interesting), Hanks goes back to the very beginning, when Russell Solomon started selling used records from the back of his father’s Tower Drug Store. From there, Solomon launched his own store, “Tower Records” in Sacramento, California. While the store was not quite a chain (much less a phenomenon) yet, Hanks and crew manage to get together a group of old employees to help tell the story through interviews, musings, old photos and videos that paint the picture of a fun time if not a sure business venture.

Of course, as the Tower brand expanded, so did the list of noteworthy names that frequented the chain. The flagship Los Angeles store was an icon that can be seen in many '80s and '90s music videos and had frequent patrons like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl. They and more are interviewed here.

Hanks works hard to balance the obviously nostalgic look back on this favored place, capturing the fun and the music and the reasons people enjoyed it, with a hard and serious look at the real reasons the dream was lost and the store failed. This, of course, requires interviews with not only Solomon, but with COO Stan Goman, industry insiders like David Geffen and all sorts of those who came and went over the years and saw the rise and fall from the inside.

Because of this, All Things Must Pass does come off as somewhat episodic and even occasionally disjointed at times. The academic pursuit is necessary, but doesn’t always fit with the music nostalgia. The expansion into multiple territories is covered, but feels a bit glossed over compared to the beginning (although this is arguably the most important chapter before the bankruptcy). Further, the aftermath of the closings is touched upon with a nostalgic visit to the Japanese Tower Records stores (which became independent before the main company’s bankruptcy), but the coverage of the name as an online retailer and attempted relaunch is given barely a mention.

That said, what Hanks and crew set out to do, they accomplish. Yes, they treat Tower Records as a sadly lost and dearly missed chain, but they also discuss the fall and the reasons therefore. Yes, Russ Solomon is treated as a visionary and maybe something of a favorite uncle, but not as a flawless being who unfairly lost his dream. Hanks isn’t afraid to delve into the mistakes (of Solomon’s and others) that led to the collapse of the Tower.

Any way you look at it, All Things Must Pass: The Rise And Fall of Tower Records is an informative, lovingly created, exciting, funny and touching documentary for music fans and business majors alike. It’s hard not to be nostalgic as we look back at something like Tower Records and realize that they just don’t make them like that, anymore. Luckily Hanks and Leckart showed up at just the right time to catch the best of the story and make a very worthwhile and wistful documentary.

As its George Harrison song namesake says “None of life's strings can last / So, I must be on my way / And face another day”. Tower Records may be gone, but with a documentary like this, the old red and yellow icon, and the era it represented, will not be forgotten.

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