Having spent a good portion the 90s dusting punk records in the indie section of Tower Records on Blackstone and Bullard in Fresno with my own dandruff, I’m an especially receptive audience for All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks’ new documentary on the rise and fall of Tower Records. For damn near anyone who grew up in California between 1970 and 2000, Tower Records was the hang out spot, a place we all somehow thought of as ours, even if it was just as much our parents’.
Growing up with an institution like that, it’s hard not to feel a deep sadness when you drive past a shuttered Tower, even if you’re not a person typically given to nostalgia over commerce, or disposed towards Sorkin-esque lectures about why mp3’s can never be as “real” as vinyl. All of which is to say that yes, Tower Records deserves to have its history told, and Colin Hanks has chosen a great subject for a documentary.
Hanks mixes stock footage and photographs, along with interviews with the principals – from Tower founder Russ Solomon to original clerks and warehouse managers – and cameos by big-name Tower fans like Elton John and Bruce Springsteen. It documents the rise and fall of Tower, and by extension, of record collecting in America. It’s a beautifully nostalgic slice of life and a compelling window into a particular subculture, with all the incredible beehives, leisure suits, and mustaches you can imagine that might entail (were women ever sexier than in the seventies? I say no). There’s a segment on Tower’s original straitlaced-yet-lecherous accountant, who gets called a pervert at his own tearful memorial, and scans of original internal Tower Records receipts for “hand truck fuel,” aka OG Tower employee slang for cocaine, which they dutifully charged to their expense accounts (must be nice).
A colorful cast of characters is a must for any compelling documentary, and All Things Must Pass certainly has that, but it eventually gets bogged down in the dull and somewhat esoteric business of internal company politics. To adapt a dad proverb, office politics are sort of like assholes. As a result All Things Must pass ends up leaning too heavily on the “what” of Tower Records while offering too little of the “why.” The company’s expansions and corporate restructurings aren’t nearly as interesting as the social forces that spawned Tower Records. As Tower founder Russ Solomon himself says in the closing moments of the film, “we were a part of people’s lives, because music was.”
Right, because the music was. For me, that’s the rub. Why was record collecting such a huge part of everyone’s lives, a key component of adolescent identity, and how did that all but disappear in five years or so? All Things Must Pass does tell some of that story, and its interviews with people like Elton John and Dave Grohl about what Tower Records meant for them are some of the best parts. But knowing the specifics of Tower’s balance sheets from 1986 or who got put in charge of the Great Lakes expansion doesn’t help me understand what Tower was and what it meant to people. Not every secret you have access to needs to be told, even if that might be easier than trying to understand the greater sociological forces at play here.
I hope Colin Hanks and Gravitas Ventures keep chiseling away at All Things Must Pass before the official release. There’s a beautiful baby in there, it just needs a nurse to come in and clean the turds and amniotic fluid off of it.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco, about six blocks from Tower Records’ original flagship store, which is now an empty shell next to a Walgreen’s. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.