Lawrence Toppman

‘All Things Must Pass’: The day the music retailer died

For a while, as “All Things Must Pass” reveals, Tower Records founder Russ Solomon was on top of the retailing world.
For a while, as “All Things Must Pass” reveals, Tower Records founder Russ Solomon was on top of the retailing world. Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

If you want an inside opinion about “Requiem for a Dream,” go to a drug addict. If you need an expert’s take on “Leaving Las Vegas,” ask an alcoholic. But if you want to know about “All Things Must Pass,” a documentary about the rise and precipitous fall of Tower Records, come to me.

I once got off a plane in Los Angeles, rented a car and drove directly to Tower’s store on Sunset Boulevard. I took a three-hour bus ride to New York to shop at the Tower at Fourth and Broadway, went down the block to the Tower Annex, took the subway uptown to the Tower at 65th Street and – after seeing a play – went back to the uptown store for 45 minutes before it closed at midnight. Though I lived in North Carolina, I was on a first-name basis with the manager of the classical section at Lincoln Center.

Director Colin Hanks, who turns 38 in two weeks, was born – like the Tower chain itself – in Sacramento. He was in college when its sales peaked at more than a billion dollars in 1999; seven years later, every Tower in North America had closed its doors.

His debut feature, subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Tower Records,” chronicles the chain’s arc. The documentary stays entirely within the corporate world of record sales, which may seem an airless atmosphere to someone who never haunted such joints. Yet the movie gradually expands to give us a somewhat larger picture of the music business.

Russ Solomon, who opened the first Tower on Sacramento’s Watt Avenue 55 years ago, offers his genial perspective on success and failure. (At nearly 90, he can afford to be philosophic.)

Hanks and writer Steven Leckart also talked to employees, who mainly describe a freewheeling group of staffers – sometimes drunk or stoned – who were opinionated, phenomenally knowledgeable about their fields and devoted to music. As Bruce Springsteen reminisces, “Everybody is your friend in a record store for 20 minutes or so....The place served as kind of a Lost Boys club. If you were a young musician, and you came into town and didn’t know what to do, the first thing you did was go to Tower Records.”

Springsteen, Elton John (who went every Tuesday morning in L.A. to buy multiple copies of new releases for his different homes), David Geffen and Dave Grohl add celebrity cachet. We also hear John Lennon doing a manic advertisement for Tower to promote one of his releases.

But the most entertaining stories come from the people who worked themselves up from shipping clerks to vice-presidents before bankruptcy squeezed them out. Hanks makes the rookie mistake of covering the same points too thoroughly – the film could be 10 to 15 minutes shorter – but you can see why he lets entertaining interviewees ramble a bit.

The chain’s death came as no surprise. It went into debt to extend itself to places it shouldn’t go (Argentina?), took a beating from Napster, was undercut by lower prices at Target and Walmart – where clerks have one-thousandth as much knowledge – and lost customers who wanted to download one song to an iPod, not buy a CD album.

Yet the story ends happily in one sense: We learn that five dozen Tower Stores, following the traditional model, thrive to this day in Japan. Hmmmm. If I can wangle a trip to Okinawa....

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘All Things Must Pass’

Director: Colin Hanks.

Length: 96 minutes.

Rating: Unrated (language).