I jumped at the chance to see the new documentary All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records, while I was in New York City last week. At that point, it was one of only two movie theaters in the country showing the film (it is now starting to open “wide,” as they say in the “industry,” quotes added solely for snarkiness). It’s a wonderful film, perfectly capturing the go-go years of this incredible chain of record/video/book stores that are sadly missed in all of the major markets that they once dominated.
I first discovered Tower Records (originally Tower Record Mart in its Sacramento, CA formative years) in New York City, at both 4th Avenue and Broadway and the Lincoln Center store, the latter of which Woody Allen immortalized in Hannah and Her Sisters. They talk about the 4th Ave. store in the documentary. It started as a desire to do a classical music store, and they figured New York was the perfect place for it. But when they looked at the store it was in an incredibly rundown neighborhood, so bad that there was a dead dog lying in the gutter in front of the storefront. Within three years, Tower Records had an amazing effect on that area, taking it from slum to viable neighborhood.
That’s just one of the many stories in this incredible documentary (currently clocking at 100% on the TomatoMeter with critics at RottenTomatoes.com), which is directed by Colin Hanks (yes, THAT Colin Hanks, actor and son of Tom, who grew up in Sacramento). The film wisely uses many of the chain’s former employees for interviews, including the boss himself, Russ Solomon, who comes across—even at the age of 90—as the coolest boss in the world. All of them are wonderful, particularly Heidi Cotler and Mark Viducich, who both rose from clerks to management, as did most of the people interviewed. There are also interviews with music personalities such as Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Dave Grohl (who worked in the Washington DC Tower), and Elton John, who shopped religiously every Tuesday he was in LA at the Sunset Strip Tower Records, buying 3 or 4 copies of each album (one for each of his houses). Like a lot of us, Elton was heartbroken to see Tower go away. Springsteen has one of the best quotes in the film: “Everyone in a record store is a little bit your friend for 20 minutes or so.” That shared experience is something you can’t get downloading music from iTunes.
The documentary follows a chronological arc from the very beginnings of Tower, selling used jukebox 45 RPM records (singles) in Solomon’s dad’s drugstore to the bitter end when banks liquidated the stores. And it’s all there, warts and all, with honest appraisals of Tower’s fate and downfall by those ex-employees, including Russ Solomon and his son. A perfect storm of circumstances caused Tower Records demise, including overextending themselves—both financially and with new stores—the CD and MP3 revolutions, and Napster. The documentary is warm, sad, poignant, and yes … I cried.
My Tower Records experience includes the above-mentioned NYC flagship stores, plus regular visits to the San Diego-area stores once I moved here in 1998. There was the Sports Arena store—originally two stores (video and records), which combined into one shortly after I started shopping there. There was also one in La Jolla, where there was a separate Classical music and video section. I loved those stores, and spent many a Friday evening at one of them. They had amazing magazine sections, and had the trademark Tower standby of great art (created in-house at the stores) to promote music and videos. I also dearly remember the Tower magazine, Pulse, which sadly was one of the first things to go once the banks got involved. I wish I hung onto some copies of that.
One thing I do have is an old Tower Records plastic bag, the classic red type on a yellow background design, which they discuss in the documentary. A friend of Russ Solomon’s designed the font (referred to as a “letter” by Russ in the film), and said they’d steal the Shell Oil Company’s color scheme. In doing so, they created both an iconic typeface and logo.
Tower Records still exists in Japan, which was once part of the Tower worldwide empire, but was spun off into a separate business entity. There are 85 stores in Japan, making it almost worthwhile to reconsider my aversion to travel across the Pacific. I’d love to shop in a Tower Records again, even if I can’t understand a word they’re singing.
Click here to see the trailer for All Things Must Pass. For more on the film, check out their amazing Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/TowerRecordsDoc, which includes photos and memorabilia from this past weekend’s Tower Records employee reunion in Sacramento, CA.