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All Things Must Pass - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
All Things Must Pass
Directing: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

You might not expect the story of a longtime American business's long-term success and quick downfall to be all that interesting. To some, perhaps it won't be. To others, Tower Records is an iconic American business worthy of this kind of cinematic treatment. To me, Tower Records was just another record store. I loved going to buy CDs at the store as a teenager just like any other kid, but I lived in Spokane and went to a place called Hastings. It was my favorite place in town. I didn't even know what Tower Records was.

But what director Colin Hanks -- of all people -- shows us in All Things Must Pass is how Tower Records became the first store of its kind, and how it influenced the entire music industry. The fact that I lived in ignorance in Spokane and didn't get out much doesn't change that. Who knew that the Tower Records on the Sunset Strip started opening an hour early just for Elton John? Elton John certainly remembers, as he's one of several surprisingly high-profile people he interviews in this film, including Bruce Springstein and David Geffen and Dave Grohl. Grohl, in fact, used to work for Tower Records, in his own words because it was the only place that would hire him without requiring that he cut his hair.

And by the time Grohl would have worked there, somewhere around the very beginning of the nineties, Tower Records had already been around for thirty years. This is a business that was started by Russell Solomon -- prominently interviewed here -- whose father owned a Tower Cut Rate Drug Store in Sacramento. The first store opened in 1960, and Solomon expanded to San Francisco in 1967. Their most famous store, on the Sunset Strip -- where Elton John claims "I spent more money than any other human being" -- was the first one they built themselves and opened in 1971. By the nineties, they had expanded up and down the West Coast, then to Japan, then to the East Coast, and then even -- and here they started making pretty big mistakes -- to Asia and Latin America.

All Things Must Pass begins by telling us Tower Records had annual sales of over $1 billion in 1999, and five years later filed for bankruptcy. The reasons ultimately revealed for this are really nothing unusual: success making people blind to the risks and debts they were taking on. Too much confidence. It's yet another crash-and-burn business story, much like the fascinating 2001 documentary about another failed business in the initially-burst dot-com bubble, Startup.com. Only this time it's about a company that lasted for decades but failed to adapt to rapidly changing times.

The advent of Napster in the early 2000s wasn't the first time the music industry was in trouble, after all. Sales were flatlining in the early eighties in the wake of the disco crash as well, but then Michael Jackson's Thriller came out and shot new life into the entire industry, and so did the sudden popularity of CDs that could be sold for multiple times the price of vinyl records.

What made Tower Records unique, initially, was its rebellious and anti-corporate spirit. There are lots of interviews with longtime employees who were there from or nearly from the beginning, starting the sixties and seventies, with sobering yet amusing anecdotes about what it was like to work there. Although Solomon himself seems somewhat deluded about it, others tell stories of a pretty much "anything goes" atmosphere -- drugs in the back rooms, sex in listening booths -- so long as the work got done. The lack of a dress code was so pointed that Solomon developed a reputation for literally cutting the ties off visiting business people. He had a framed collage of them on his wall.

As evidenced by Dave Grohl's stories, this lasted well into the nineties. It made Tower Records a very popular place to be. And although Russell Solomon had people working with him who attempted to balance this spirit, he was clearly a little less mindful than he should have been about rapid and far-reaching expansion. The brand recognition bringing throngs did not work as a business model in all areas of the world.

Many people like to blame Napster for the downfall of places like Tower Records, but what All Things Must Pass demonstrates is how they could have survived by making fewer ill-informed decisions. The brand still exists and thrives in Japan even today, after all. There were many other contributing factors, including the refusal to sell singles and thus forcing customers to pay huge prices for full albums, which then were sold at half the cost at nearby big box sores like Target or Wal-Mart. In the end, the story of Tower Records is simply the story of some people who got very, very lucky for a long time -- and then lost their jobs because they didn't know what they were doing in a changing world.

Thus, the emotional impact of All Things Must Pass -- the title a reference to what they put up on the marquee at their original Sacramento store when it finally closed in 2006 -- is likely to vary depending on your personal relationship and history with the store. People for whom it was their first doorway into music, and people like Dave Grohl and Elton John, obviously miss it dearly. But the rest of us? It's too bad people who worked there for decades lost their jobs, sure. But everything about how they wound up bankrupt makes sense, making it difficult to sympathize with those at the top who really should have known better. There's a clip of Russell Solomon doing a late-nineties MTV News interview insisting that CDs are going to be around "for a very long time."

Anyone younger than, say, 35, might watch this movie with a bit of bemusement. People were so dumb back then! And what sense is there in mourning the loss of this supposedly great model of physical rather than online stores? Russell Solomon was a guy stuck in the past while Steve Jobs was looking to the future with inspired genius. (Curious that devices like the iPod are never even mentioned in this movie.) We live in a different world now and the customers driving the music industry as it exists today are totally fine with it.

Russell Solomon stands among the throngs of patrons at the new Tower Records on the Sunset Strip in ALL THINGS MUST PASS.</a>

Overall: B
1 comment or Leave a comment
Heather McCrillis From: Heather McCrillis Date: November 20th, 2015 02:27 am (UTC) (Link)
I wonder how long MP#s and cloud storage are going to be around for music.
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