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All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records (Blu-ray Review)

8 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.

Five years before it declared bankruptcy, Tower Records amassed a billion dollars in 1999 earnings, and at least some of these were from me — a mere pittance, though, compared to Elton John, who apparently used to stop just short of buying out in the store during his frequent and even regimented show-ups. Tower was that kind of cathedral for me — either in New York City on visits or hanging out at the one in my suburb, which was located next to both a multiplex and a Chinese restaurant to facilitate a little one-stop bankruptcy of my own.

I’m not sure how it came to be that Colin Hanks (son of Tom) took on Tower’s story as a screen project, but on some level it was out of love because there’s just too much wistful adoration in every frame here. Not that it isn’t easy to revere the memory of a business that was so comprehensive in its musical selection that it had, at least in my experiences, a separate doorway just to the classical section, which stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I saw it. Or one whose dominant Sunset Strip location was so legendary even in pre-Internet days that I knew about it in some depth (albeit second-hand depth) despite living on the opposite coast. And when I finally got to visit it in L.A. roundabouts mid-to-late-’70s, I stopped dead in my tracks again when I found a British import vinyl of every Elvis-’56 major hit in original — which I didn’t even know existed. And in original mono after RCA had re-issued these seminal recordings in echo-heavy fake stereo that made them sound as if they’d been waxed inside a giant V-8 can.

The documentary’s centerpiece is infectious yarn-spinner Russ Solomon, the kind of boss everyone dreams of having. Always willing to act on some staffer’s good idea if they could make it work (on their own) and also the last person to care about a dress code, Solomon kept the formula working for almost 40 years after he began by peddling records in his father’s Sacramento pharmacy. From this, he much later ended up opening those distinctive yellow buildings with the equally distinctive red lettering in Japan and countless other exotic locales, also in U.S. suburbs after the always-expanding company established itself in adjacent metropolitan areas (Tower’s New York City debut in a hitherto dead area of Greenwich Village helped revitalize the neighborhood).

Eventually, the corporation employed its own in-house art departments, published a savvy music periodical of its own and had no peers when it came to promoting albums; the DVD/Blu-ray bonus section recalls how Capitol Records even arranged for a pink elephant to come into one of the stores to hype The Band’s Music From Big Pink — a conceit for which the elephant (and animal rights activists) exacted a kind of revenge when the former whizzed a tsunami that cascaded down the street after he was helped back into the truck. It was that kind of work environment, which (being the record business) also included extra-curricular substance abuses that sometimes even took place off company time. Still, even the least-paid employees knew their sometimes encyclopedic stuff, and the blueprint worked magnificently until the “fall” part of the story. You could have fun working for Tower, but you had to know and do your job.

In retrospect, of course, expanding hubris didn’t help — nor did the departure of a company money man who had at least tried to keep expenditures in line. Napster was a window into the immediate future that the entire industry nonetheless failed to see coming, but on top of this Tower was overextended as it kept expanding. And did CDs, which had helped rescue the music biz in the first place from an early ’80s slump, really have to cost $18 or $19? Consumers rebelled, and so, eventually, did the bean counters sent in to rectify Tower’s specific situation — one of them a spirit-killer that the normally agreeable Solomon sounds as if he’d have liked to shove under the elephant. Not that corporate discipline wasn’t desperately needed by this, but the repair folk didn’t “get” the business, and their solutions merely expedited the dissolution process.

Tower was the kind of operation where a store clerk might eventually become a company executive, and a significant number of these are still around on camera to tell war stories (not, though, the bean counters because this is a rose-colored remembrance). I’ve been lucky enough to work at a couple relatively loosey-goosey kind of places that still engender these kind of toasty memories, and I promise you that’ll they be the ones that’ll bring me a smile on my deathbed (not the ones that paid more, which were generally run by the grown-up versions of all those noodges you wanted to make miserable in the ninth grade). Hanks’s approach makes it easy to understand the interviewees’ ebullience (at least toward all but the final epoch), which is still sustained. And though there are better documentaries that came out last year — in fact, nearly all of my top 2015 movie picks are documentaries — none of them make me as happy.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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