When it comes to making a documentary, one of the main things that a filmmaker can do to elevate his or her film is to find the universal appeal in a very specific subject. And that’s exactly what Colin Hanks has done with “All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records.”
On the surface, “All Things Must Pass” is the story of Tower Records, that venerable record store chain with the yellow and red bags, that oasis of hipness which sprung to life on the west coast and became the cool neighborhood hangout for two generations’ worth of young adults. If you’re of a certain age, you will remember actually walking into a record store, seeing rack upon rack filled with vinyl (later cassettes and CDs) to buy, and possibly even getting a tip about an unknown band from one of the clerks.
Hanks goes deeper than this though, and with the help of writer Steven Leckart, “All Things Must Pass” weaves a parallel tale of the music business of the last 50 years as well (with warnings for every other modern retailer for that matter) alongside the rise and fall of this company.
When Russ Solomon founded his first record store by piggybacking off of his father’s drug store, nobody could have foreseen the evolution the record industry would undergo in the next half century. The 45 gave way to the mass LP buying of the 1970s, into the mega artist/MTV driven 1980s, and finally the digital revolution, first ushered in by the CD, and eventually the downfall of the brick and mortar record stores wrought by Napster, YouTube, and the 99 cent download.
And in this telling of the revolution helped along by one retailer, and the evolution of a business as a whole, you get the personal stories of the people who were there, telling their own narrative. It seems like a subject that could get easily get away from you; after all, we are talking about a global retailer and an ever changing industry that reaches into most of our lives on a daily basis. But Hanks has found a solid structure, and without any real narration or devices (other than some simple graphics) he lets the people involved tell the story.
It’s that simple.
But it’s also incredibly effective, as we watch Tower Records start as a small family concern in Sacramento, and then spread all across the country, and then into Latin America, Japan, and the UK. Solomon is a magnetic personality, and Hanks rightly gives him a fair amount of screen time. But he’s also wise to let others in on the tale as well. Many of the people who rose through the ranks at Tower Records started off as clerks or had other menial jobs with the company. They learned the business from the ground up; they grew up while working at various stores, partying together in an atmosphere and a business related to another business which as it grew also had somewhat of a counterculture reputation of its own—the record industry.
“All Things Must Pass” traces the growth of Tower Records and Solomon’s rise to prominence within the record business, as he and his burgeoning executive team (which is comprised of some entertaining people as well) head one of the biggest music retailers in the world, influencing how people perceive and buy music.
We also see how Tower Records has affected musicians and their relationships to music. Elton John was a very prominent customer, and we watch archival footage of him combing through stacks of vinyl at Tower Records. He gives a very moving testimonial about what shopping at Tower was like. Dave Grohl, from Foo Fighters, is also perfect for this film. You can tell that not only does he love making music, but he loves talking about it from the perspective of the outcast teen he was and how he found a haven at his Tower Records store.
In Hanks’ hands, “All Things Must Pass” is more than just a jumbo sized edition of “Behind the Music.” It delves into the inner workings of the lives of the people who spent 30 years or more nurturing a company, their inter-personal relationships, and the decline of the music retail world.
As with any documentary, the viewer has to be invested in the subject matter, as well as the people who are telling their stories. “All Things Must Pass” does a remarkable job on both fronts. You can feel the joy, the anger, the hurt, and the bittersweet emotions which are a part of Solomon’s story as well as those who helped built his company. And honestly, what’s more personal than the music we listen to or how we were introduced to it?