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Anyone who ever possessed a cherished LP or CD collection (remember those?) will feel a nostalgia rush while watching actor Colin Hanks‘ documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records. Relating the story of the disintegration of the recorded music industry via the struggles of one retailer, albeit a huge, dominant one, All Things Must Pass approaches its sad subject with a well-balanced mixture of dispassion and sympathy.
The film’s charismatic central figure is Russ Solomon, the bearded octogenarian who started the company in the early 1960s in his father’s Sacramento drug store. Inspired by the popularity of the establishment’s juke box, he began selling used records, and the rest is, well, history.
The business eventually expanded to numerous cities, including Los Angeles, where its Sunset Boulevard location become an iconic destination for music fans including such celebrities as Elton John, who boasts, “I spent more money in Tower Records than any other human being.” One of the more amusing segments features vintage film footage of him prowling the store’s aisles with a lengthy shopping list, trailed by his limo driver dutifully carrying a box to hold his myriad purchases.
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Several former employees testify as to the business’s wild and wooly days, with clerks hired simply for their love of music rising to management positions even while enjoying a drug and alcohol-rich work environment in which cocaine went under the code name “handtruck fuel.” Solomon credits his employees’ enthusiasm on the absence of a workplace”dress code,” a sentiment echoed by rocker Dave Grohl, who worked there in his youth.
“It was the only place I could get a job with my f—ing haircut,” Grohl says.
Other commentators rhapsodizing about Tower include David Geffen and Bruce Springsteen, with the latter’s poetic comment that “It’s that place where your dreams meet the listener” practically inviting the question of why he never wrote that song.
The company’s success led it to expand to numerous locations, including Japan, where it was an instant success, and Manhattan’s East Village, where they took over a building the size of half a city block and transformed the neighborhood near New York University. Tower even published its own magazine, Pulse, which became an essential read for music buffs.
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At one point the music industry was in the doldrums, only to be rescued in the early ‘80s by the simultaneous appearances of MTV, Michael Jackson‘s Thriller and the CD, the last of which was a boon due to its higher pricing and its appeal to music collectors who eagerly replaced their LPs with the new format.
But a later combination of overexpansion and the rise of digital music, including such sharing services as Napster, eventually spelled Tower’s demise. “It was one of the greatest tragedies of my life,” declares John of the L.A. location’s closing, and despite the hyperbole it’s clear he really means it.
The film’s title stems not only from George Harrison‘s song, played over the end credits, but also a banner placed on the Sacramento location by employees in its final days. Ironically, it was covered up by a large “Going Out of Business” sign.
The story doesn’t entirely end unhappily. While it no longer operates in America, Tower still thrives in Japan, where it has some 85 locations. The scene of Solomon happily visiting one of them and being treated with reverence by the employees well illustrates the company’s famous motto, “No Music, No Life.”
Director: Colin Hanks
Screenwriter: Steven Leckart
Producer: Sean Stuart
Executive producer: Glen Zipper
Directors of photography: Nicola Marsh, Bridger Nielson, Neil Lisk
Editor: Darrin Roberts
Composer: Bill Sherman
Not rated, 94 min.
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