AUSTIN, TX: “Everybody in a record store is your friend for 20 minutes or so,” Bruce Springsteen announces in All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’ nerdy, nostalgic documentary about Tower Records, which premiered last week at SXSW after seven years in the making. As ex-Tower clerk Dave Grohl points out later, this is not necessarily true of most record store employees, who have a snobbish reputation. But Tower was different.
With All Things Must Pass, it would have been easy for Hanks to make one of those documentaries that favor hero worship of a subject — complete with celebrity endorsements — over actual narrative. Instead we get the nuts-and-bolts story of how Russ Solomon and his dedicated team transformed a tidy used 45″ section at his father’s Sacramento drug store in the 1940s into a beacon of coolness during California’s music boom in the late ’60s and ’70s. From there Tower grew into an international record chain of nearly 200 mega-stores (not franchises). Solomon is portrayed an eccentric dreamer instead of a business shark. Though people like that tend to make for interesting documentary subjects, All Things Must Pass is both a group effort and an archive of the record industry itself.
As Hanks told the crowd at one of three SXSW screenings, the film’s focus on teamwork was the one caveat Solomon demanded when he first agreed to participate. The large cast of ex-employees, who all rose the ranks from store clerks to senior executives before Tower filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2006, are perhaps more crucial than Solomon in All Things Must Pass. They admit to some fantastic levels of debauchery, like cocaine frenzies spent restocking the two original stores in Sacramento. Remarkably, their perspectives vary enough to keep the approach interesting, though it can become difficult to keep everyone straight due to the sheer number of ex-VPs who appear.
For all his glorification of Tower’s knowledgeable staff and comprehensive selection, Hanks also recognizes the need to tell a story that, in many ways, echoes the rise and fall of the record biz itself. This is why All Things Must Pass is worth seeing even if you’re a music fan who possesses little nostalgia for Tower Records. If you can relate to Tower’s “music is life” slogan, you’ll find something to appreciate here. (The vintage footage of Elton John’s Tuesday morning record-shopping ritual at the Sunset Boulevard Tower is likely among them.)
The most fascinating aspects of the film focus on how quickly each of the early stores became legendary, how easy the billions came during the CD era, and how rapidly it all undid itself. Hanks and co. could have spent more time chronicling the specifics of Tower’s sudden demise, though I imagine that would have nudged All Things Must Pass towards an ending that vilifies the current state of the music industry instead of celebrating its golden era.
When Hanks started making the film in 2008, streaming music services were not a thing, and the music industry had bemoaned illegal downloading nonstop for more than five years. Tower was barely two years removed from its fall, and yet Hanks ended up making a bittersweet rumination on what was a room of one’s own for music fans. Now, nearly a decade out, the story of Tower Records feels like a reminder of what it meant to love music before digital accessibility ruled supreme.
(All Things Must Pass is currently seeking a distribution deal, so no wide release date is on the horizon just yet.)