Six and a half months after the South by Southwest 2015 debut and several weeks after that ridiculous stonewalling episode sparked by Gravitas Ventures’ spokesperson AJ Feuerman, I finally saw Colin Hanks‘ All Things Must Pass (Gravitas, 10.16) late yesterday afternoon. And I have to say it’s much better than I expected. I was hoping for something reasonably well done or “good enough” or attaboyish, but this rise and fall of Tower Records history is extra-level — tight, comprehensive, exacting, epic-scaled. Hanks has clearly invested rivers of feeling and loads of hard work.
This thing is emotional. Especially that. If you lived through and savored the Tower Records heyday (mid ’60s to early aughts but more essentially the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s) it’ll open the floodgates big-time. The doc is full of characters and personalities and the usual eccentricities and foibles. It’s not just a recitation of occurrences or statistics. It’s about the heartbreak of time, about the cost of loss and how it all falls away sooner or later. It’s about “what happened to the fun?”
Because ATMP is not only a chronicle of a mythical record-store mecca but a farewell valentine to the now-concluded era of the record (or video) store as a family meeting place — an organic, tactile clubhouse where you went to hang and converse and debate as well as occasionally buy stuff. Streaming has made everything bountiful in terms of access but the face-to-face community aspect is toast. Social media is a chillier, lonelier way of communicating. Which is why I still go to Amoeba once or twice a week. Half the time I’ll decide to rent a streaming version of a Bluray I’ll see in the racks or pay less money by buying online, but I go for the visitation vibes, the personalities, the energy, the people-gazing.
Because (and I realize this is probably the most common observation of 21st Century life out there right now) there’s obviously an isolating element to social media absorption. I “talk” to more people these days than I ever did before Twitter and texting, and in much more intimate and particular terms in a sense, but the conversational quality isn’t the same.
This is what All Things Must Pass puts you in touch with — the way it all used to look and sound and feel 15, 20, 25, 30 and even 40 years ago. Because those days are gone, man. Move on, be here now, all things must pass — I get and accept all that. But I would have those old excessive times again. Not the ridiculously high CD prices but the personal crazy stuff — that I miss.
The conventional view is that it all began to sour for Tower in the ’90s. That’s when it began to be extra-noticeable that record companies were over-charging for CDs (in 1995 they were getting $17 dollars for top-name albums, which is worth $26 and change today). By the end of that decade Napster and other streaming services began to eat into the appetite for albums and CD-singles (which eventually got phased out). And then Best Buy and Walmart started selling albums much cheaper than Tower. And on top of this Tower had over-expanded and over-borrowed, and the debt was massive. The film says right at the begining that Tower recorded $1 billion in sales in ’99, but five years later they were in bankruptcy. Tower liquidated everything in ’06.
Hanks makes the most of the recollections and personality of Russ Solomon, the avuncular, open-hearted impresario who embodied the heart and spirit of the company for 45 years. Born in 1925, Russ began his record business in the rear of his father’s Sacramento drug store in the early ’50s. By the very early ’60s a stand -alone Sacramento store was thriving. Always more of a seat-of-the-pants visionary than a dollar-and-cents businessman (but at the same time a brilliant innovator and earner), Russ started the San Francisco store in ’68, and then the Sunset Strip store in ’70. Tower eventually became a cross-country and international empire, peaking in the ’90s in terms of outlets and income. All kind of fervor, laughter, large-living and celebration…and Tony Montana-sized mountains of nose-candy in the ’80s, you bet.